This morning we are starting a new series of sermons on the Thirty-nine Articles. We start with Article 1; and my headings this morning are first, BELIEFS, CREEDS AND ARTICLES; secondly, BIBLICAL TEACHING and thirdly, SOME APPLICATION
First, BELIEFS, CREEDS AND ARTICLES
Everybody believes something. Everybody has some belief or at least a tentative assumption about the foundational reality of this universe. That is the reality from which everything else comes and on which all depends and that is ultimately self-existent. Well, Article 1 of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, entitled Of Faith in the Holy Trinity and summarising biblical teaching, says what or who that something is. It says that what really is 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 [or Spirit].”
And by way of explanation, “without parts” seems originally to have meant unable to be parted or divided. And “without passions” does not mean “without compassion”, but unable to be forced to suffer or to be compelled in any way.
Article 1 is, therefore, saying “however unacceptable to many today, this Holy Trinity of one God in three persons is the only God.” That means every other claim to being ultimate and self-existent is false.
So the belief or assumption that there is an unconscious force that acts without reason but in regular ways (the belief of many modern secularists) is false. For there is nothing or no-one, says Article 1, in all creation who has the power to create existence as we know it from nothing and then sustain it in being apart from the one true God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He is, as Article 1 says, “the Maker and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible”. He alone is life-making and life-giving and alive himself. He is the “one living and true God”.
But why should you believe that such a Trinitarian world-view involving Jesus of Nazareth and a final Judgment Day is true and this Article 1 is true?
Well, as the Apostle Paul told the sceptical Athenians centuries ago, God …
“… has given assurance [of this world-view] to all by raising him [Jesus, the second person of the Divine Trinity] from the dead.”
But, you then ask, why have all the complicated Church statements about the Trinity? Why not say, there is just one God, and he morphed into Jesus for his life on earth and then after his death morphed into the Holy Spirit, who is with us now. Or why not say there is one God, but Jesus is just the best man who ever lived and the Holy Spirit is just God’s influence. Or why not say there are simply three Gods – the Father God, the Son God and the Holy Spirit God?
All these suggestions were argued in the early centuries of the Church’s life and they have been argued since. But Jesus and his Apostles, whom he had commissioned and were equipped by the Holy Spirit to pass on his teaching, taught otherwise. And so Christians believe otherwise.
And they believe, and not only because they trust Christ’s teaching. It is also because their experience of God working in their own lives doesn’t fit those non-Trinitarian arguments. But it does fit the Trinitarian teaching of Jesus and his Apostles that you have in the Bible.
So after some centuries of argument and discussion Creeds were agreed that fitted in with this teaching of Jesus and his Apostles. Actually the early Church Fathers and teachers built on the Apostles’ Creed which was a basic document for teaching new converts wanting to be baptized. They then expanded this by Creeds that made explicit what was implicit in the Bible’s teaching about the person and nature of Christ and the Holy Spirit and about the Trinity.
The result is the Nicene Creed on the deity of Christ and the deity of the Holy Spirit and then the full Athanasian Creed on the Trinity. These were landmark documents in the Church’s history.
And these Creeds were to teach the faithful and make clear what was true and what was false. And also they were disciplinary. So teachers could be checked against them to ensure they were teaching Apostolic truth. All that was going on in the first five centuries of the Church’s life.
But jump the centuries to the 16th century when there were new arguments. These were not now about the incarnation of Jesus or the Trinity, nor, as today, about the truth and trustworthiness of the Bible or gender and sexual ethics. No! The divisions then centred around what the Church should teach about sin, salvation, faith and the Church itself. And these divisions gave rise to a number of Reformation documents that were longer than the early Creeds but still worked like Creeds for teaching and discipline.
In the UK there was the Westminster Confession. This was a mini systematic theology for the Presbyterians and so for the Church of Scotland.
For the Church of England there were the Thirty-nine Articles. But the Articles breathe a different spirit from the more systematic Westminster Confession. As Griffith Thomas, the first Principle of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and a great enthusiast for the 39 Articles puts it:
“There is an obvious danger in every attempt at systematizing Christian truth … it is far better to be content with ‘articles’ or ‘points’, with gaps unfilled … It is the virtue of the Church of England articles that they … do not commit Churchmen to an absolute, rigid system of doctrine from which there is no relief and of which there is no modification.”
Old Bishop J.C.Ryle used to say that it is possible to be more systematic than Scripture.
You see, the Creeds and Confessions are not to supplant the Bible but to help you as you read it. And, importantly, these are to prevent you re-inventing theological wheels and making the mistakes others have made in history. You so need the wisdom of the ages. Paul’s great Trinitarian prayer for the Ephesians was to this effect that (Eph 3.17-19)…
I“… according to the riches of his glory he [the Father] may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in you inner being, so that Christ may dwell in you hearts through faith – that you, being rooted and grounded in love, [listen] may have strength to comprehend WITH ALL THE SAINTS [that is to say ‘with saints’ of earlier generations as well as those of today] what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph 3.17-19)
That is why Church history and tradition are so vital. But tradition must not add to, or take away from, biblical truth. So that brings us to our …
… second heading and BIBLICAL TEACHING
Is this credal teaching on God and the Trinity, and so Article 1, implicit in the bible? The answer has to be “Yes”! Let me give you four important facts.
Fact one: Jesus was so clear about the Trinity – on the one but also three, Take his very last words in Matthew’s Gospel. As we heard in our New Testament reading, Jesus told his disciples:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mat 28.19),
You must note, it is not baptize “in the names”, plural, “of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” but “in the name”, singular. For the three persons together form one God. Of course, this is a mystery. But Jim Packer, another enthusiast for the Articles, says we shouldn’t be surprised – I quote:
“In itself the divine tri-unity is a mystery, a transcendent fact that passes our understanding (the same is true of such realities as God’s eternity, infinity, omniscience, and providential control of our free actions; indeed, all truths about God exceed our comprehension, more or less). How the one eternal God is eternally both singular and plural, how Father, Son and Spirit are personally distinct yet essentially one (so that tritheism, belief in three gods who are not one, and Unitarianism, belief in one God who is not three, are both wrong), is more than we can know, and any attempt to “explain” it – to dispel the mystery by reasoning, as distinct from confessing it from Scripture – is bound to falsify it.”
Fact two: Jesus Christ, the New Testament shows, was God and God is one. So our New Testament reading said, his disciples “worshipped him” (Mat 28.17). But Jesus prayed to his Father and promised that he would send the Holy Spirit. He says to his disciples (John 14.16):
“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you for ever.” (John 14.16)
Fact three: our Salvation is the result of the Father and the Son and the Spirit working together. Here again is Paul and in Eph 1.11-13:
“In him [the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ] we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.” (Eph 1.11-13)
And fact four: the Trinity was so assumed in the early church that a reference to it was how you could begin and end correspondence.
Here is Peter beginning his first letter (1 Pet 1.1-2):
“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who are elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you.” (1 Pet 1.1-2)
And here is Paul finishing off his Corinthian correspondence (2 Cor 13.14):
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (2 Cor 13.14)
The doctrine of the Trinity is clearly Biblical.
That brings us thirdly, to SOME APPLICATION of Article 1 and the doctrine of the Trinity.
How should this Article 1 apply today?
Let me suggest five ways.
First, the 20th and 21st centuries have seen what can only be called a downsizing of God.
J B Phillips little book Your God is too small is too often too true. So the question is this: do you really believe that God is …
“… of infinite power, wisdom and goodness; the Maker and Preserver of all things”
as the Bible from cover to cover makes clear he is?
If so, you should be “lost in wonder, love and praise”, as Charles Wesley puts it in his hymn Love Divine all loves excelling. And you should be reminding yourself day by day that God …
“… is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think, according to the power at work in us.” (Eph 3.20)
That is a wonderful promise in Eph 3.20.
A second application for today is in matters of ethics, and not least in marital and sexual ethics.
God is of “infinite power, wisdom and goodness”. So because he is infinitely wise and good as well as having infinite power, his law will always be in your best interest and for your true human flourishing. And so disobedience will, long term if not short term, be harmful and lead to misery.
A third application relates to the Trinity and how it reminds you that some seemingly contradictory facts are “both/and” and not “either/or”.
And problems come when you deny one or other of the facts and you do not hold both truths in tension. As we have seen, the doctrine of the Trinity shows how you must say God is one and God is three, but he is not just one or just three.
But there is another “both/and” and not an “either/or” regarding the Trinity. This is the fact that the three Persons are both equal but different. And they are different in order and office (or role), but with the difference not denying the equality. Let me explain.
Only Jesus is our prophet, priest and king.
But that involves a degree of subordination under the Father while at the same time his equality with the Father remains. As we say in the Nicene Creed, he is of “one being with the Father”. But he is commissioned by his Father and fulfils his mission.
And the Bible says this pattern of Trinitarian relationships applies to relationships in the family and in the family of the Church. For there is to be equality and difference also with some degree of subordination in some situations of women to men.
Paul teaches in Gal 3.28 the equality of men and women in Christ. But in 1 Corinthians 11.3 Paul writes:
“the head of every man is Christ, the head of the wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” (1 Corinthians 11.3)
And in the family of the Church (“the household of God”) Paul also writes in 1 Timothy 2.12 that senior teaching leadership in the Church has to be male – hence all the current arguments about women bishops.
But because there is equality, the balancing truth to this male headship is that there must never be wrong male dominance or female servility. For if there is a problem with women bishops (which a common sense reading of the Bible suggests there is), the balancing truth is that there is no problem expressed about women judges like Deborah in the Old Testament; the Queen of Sheba in the Old Testament; business women in the New Testament, like Lydia at Thyatira; or women like the good wife in Proverbs – a well educated woman with business interests while running what looks like an early version of Downton Abbey.
So much for the application of the Trinitarian relationship of equal but different.
A fourth application of Article 1 relates to God being “the Maker and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible”.
However, or whenever, all began, our Triune God (this Article is saying) is the Creator of this amazing universe. But he didn’t just make it and then let it run on like clockwork as some have said, not least in the 18th century. For ever since the dawn of time he has been preserving what he has created. And he is omnipresent in it. All things hold together because of him; and Paul says famously of this preserving work in Rom 8.28:
“we know that for those who love God all thing work together for good.” (Rom 8.28)
Do you believe that?
This is God’s providential preserving work. Like the Trinity this is a mystery. But it means that God is interested even in the smallest details of your life. Jesus said, God knows you, even to the number of the hairs on your head. And remember he knows best. He is “of infinite power, wisdom and goodness”.
So trust him in good times as well as in bad times.
And the fifth application relates to the Trinity being experienced.
I conclude , therefore, with a simple question: “Who this morning has never yet experienced the truth of God, the Holy Trinity, working in their life?”
You see, it is the Holy Spirit who opens your heart to listen to God’s word; and the Holy Spirit convicts you that you are not right with your Father who is in heaven – for we all sin; and the Holy Spirit convicts you that you need Christ’s help and forgiveness to put right what has been wrong. But the good news is that Christ died in your place to put you right with God. The Holy Spirit then helps you to trust Christ as your Saviour and Lord; and he strengthens you to obey him as you seek to live for him in the world and so bring glory to God.
So the final question is, “who needs to be open to the Holy Spirit like that this morning?”