Saturday, 11 October 2008

Blogging the Confession 8 - Triune God

The doctrine of the Trinity is probably the most significant and distinctive Christian doctrine (the only other nomination would be Christology, but the two are so closely related). When the Westminster Assembly came to address the Trinity it had nothing new to say. The Reformation had affirmed the doctrine of ecumenical councils. (John Calvin does seem to have had a subtly different way of approaching the doctrine focussing on the persons in unity rather than God’s essence – that is reflected in the Confession).

However the doctrine of the Trinity did seem to be under pressure in the 1640’s in London. The movement was called “Socinianism” after Faustus Socinus (1539-1604) a radical theologian Italian who ended up in Poland. He subjected Christian theological tradition to a rational  and biblicistic critique rejecting the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the imputation of sin or righteousness, original sin, predestination, real or spiritual presence in Lord’s Supper. This was summarised in the Racovinian Cathechism (1605). This stream of thought was present in 17th C. England though it is hard to trace the relationship with

Socinus.  Certainly accusations of and warnings about Socinianism were  common in 17th C theological rhetoric. For a  well-informed positive assessment of Socinianism see here. His picture is right.

 So the Assembly made sure that it affirmed that there are three persons in the one God and each is fully God. It differentiates persons by internal relations following the Western tradition: the Son is begotten and the Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son. It is a succinct statement of classical orthodoxy, using the classic language  ‘persons’ and substance (i.e.  substantia.)

 John Murray commented on this section that “its brevity is striking and its simplicity is matched only by its brevity. Both surprise and gratification are evoked by the restraint in defining the distinguishing properties of the persons of the Godhead … Later generations lie under a great debt to Westminster for the studied reserve which saved the Confession from being burdened with such speculative notions as commended themselves to theologians … but to which the Scripture did not lend support.”  (“The theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith” Scripture and Confession  P&R, 1973, 132).

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