Article I: Of faith in the Holy Trinity

This post is part of a Lenten series on the 39 Articles.

number oneArticle I: Of faith in the Holy Trinity
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 first article deals, fittingly, with the Holy Trinity. Seems like about the best place to start on a tour of doctrinal assertions. Most of what’s in the first article should not be controversial — the contents come straight from the creeds and the Bible.

There are a couple of things we might well note. First, as a colleague of mine pointed out to me, one could fruitfully meditate on the beauty of the language itself. The phrase “…without body, parts, or passions…” is some pretty good stuff. If you are pondering this Article, I hope you’ll take some time to savor the rhythm of the words.

Second, there’s that word, “passions.” Saying that God does not have passions is a very Greek understanding of God — Aristotle would be proud. But it’s not very biblical, especially if one reads the Old Testament. And do not try the Old/New Testament God(s) trick. You’d be in bad company.

I’m not clever enough to know whether or not God has passions, in the meaning of this Article. (Is God swayed by “feelings”?) It strikes me that one can make a good case for God having passions using the Bible. Even Jesus Christ, the perfect “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) seems to have had passions. Remember the money changers in the temple? Weeping at the grave of Lazarus? Appearing to be persuaded several times? If Jesus had passions, perhaps the “invisible God” has passions. Apart from 16th century concerns, why someone today would insist on believing in a God “without passions” is beyond me.

Now, all of that said, we have to remember that the 39 Articles do not exist in a historical vacuum. They are framed to position early Anglicanism against the backdrop of Genevan Calvinism, Roman Catholicism, and even brand-new Lutheranism. Someone who knows more about the intellectual history of the time can tell me why it would have been important to make an assertion about God’s passions here. The rest of the Article seems straightforward.

I think perhaps the point of this Article is to remind readers that God is not made in our image. It is as easy today as it was 450 years ago to forget that we are made in God’s image and not the reverse. Generation after generation has forged an image of God to suit our own preferences, hopes, and fears.

While someone might have wanted to argue whether God was Trinitarian or passionate several centuries ago, we have our own idolatries and heresies today. Writing now, an author might want to remind us that God transcends human consciousness, that God is more than the sum total of humanity’s warm fuzzy feelings. We might need a reminder that God is more than “The Force” of Star Wars. (You laugh, but I’ve heard sermons that more-or-less suggest this kind of view.)

Just last weekend I heard someone offer a prayer with a series of declarative statements about God. “You are here. You are in the food. You are in the people around us…” and so on. OK, fair enough. But that doesn’t begin to grasp the nature of the God who made the heavens and the earth and all that dwells therein. Such a prayer has domesticated and reduced God to a thing we can grab hold of. And at that point, we’ve forgotten who we worship.

That’s why we need to be reminded that God is not a super-person or a feeling. God transcends humanity. Article I makes that pretty clear. The second sentence of the Article comes right out of the creeds. One could write a whole series on the mystery, breadth, and power of the Holy Trinity. I won’t try to say much here, other than to encourage you to take some time, dear reader, to ponder the Triune God whom we worship.

Here are some suggestions for meditating on Article I.

  • How can we find God’s “infinite power, wisdom, and goodness” expressed in salvation history? How might the Church better witness this to the world today?
  • What does it mean to say that God is not only the maker of all things, but the preserver of all things?
  • Imagine that God has no passions. Imagine that God has passions. Which one seems to cohere with the God of the whole Bible? Which view of God seems to empower us for our mission in the world?
  • Ponder the Trinitarian nature of God. How might our faith be changed if we took seriously all three persons of the Trinity?

Almighty God, you have revealed to your Church your eternal Being of glorious majesty and perfect love as one God in Trinity of Persons: Give us grace to continue steadfast in the confession of this faith, and constant in our worship of you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; for you live and reign, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Previous: Introduction
Next: Article II: Of the Word, or Son of God, which was made very man

5 Responses

  1. Bob Chapman says:

    “For God so loved the world….”

    There must be a connotation to passion back in that day that we aren’t getting in our day. isn’t helping much, except for definition #10:

    “the state of being acted upon or affected by something external, especially something alien to one’s nature or one’s customary behavior (contrasted with action).”

    The only thing in the etymology of the word I see that may be helpful is there is appears to be a sense of “submit” in passion.

  2. Glenn Brown says:

    I’d even argue that the very idea of the trinity points to a god who is passionate. This is a god who’s very identity is found in God’s love for us. It tells us that God loves us so much that the love can’t possibly be contained in one person.

  3. Roo says:

    If a Presbyterian may be allowed to interject 🙂 I’m really enjoying your study of the 39 Articles Scott, so thank you (I’m commenting but today is Day 3).
    With regards to passions – this is also in the Westminster Confession of Faith – indeed much of the 39 Articles can be seen lifted direct from the WCF. Anyway! The impassibility of God dates back to the Early Church and is enshrined in the historic Confessions of the Reformation; held also by the RC Church. It proves a difficult one for us today and many have abandoned it, even in the conservative subscription Churches of Presbyterianism. However, some argue that impassibility – without passions – is simply that God is not subject to our fickle emotions. His passions do not have the negative associations of our own and therefore he is without (our understanding/experience of) passions. It is a complex Greek philosophical concept and there is some evidence to suggest that the Hellenisation of Christianity led us to this error of understanding. Certainly, those who held the doctrine didn’t allow it to neuter the passion of God in their devotional or preaching life (i.e. Samuel Rutherford of Scottish Puritan fame).

    Robert Reymond has a very interesting section in his “A New Systematic Theology” which is based on the WCF – and I’d encourage you to have a look at it on impassibility of God. It’s a good read! 🙂

    Many thanks for your insights…

  4. Scott Gunn says:

    Roo, I most eagerly welcome the input of Presbyterians! The Articles are, as you rightly point out, from a particularly Calvinist point in Anglican history. If anything, you can probably read them with more clarity and less baggage than many of us Catholic-influenced Anglicans.

    I get the Greek origins and all, or at least I think I do. As I wrote in the introduction, I’m no theologian. It’s hard to say that God is emotional, but not “fickle”, if one reads the Old Testament at face value. God is persuaded to take different courses of action at times, and even “repents” more than once. This gets back to questions of which bits of our doctrine are biblical and which bits have other sources.

    I finally got a chance to read bits of Gerald Bray’s book on the 39 Articles, and he also talks about impassability. Indeed, the Articles were originally composed in Latin, and “passions” is a crude English translation of the Latin word (with its associate concepts) as you say. While I wouldn’t want to suggest God’s emotional responses are like human responses, I’d be reluctant to sign on for the doctrine of impassability as I understand it.

    That said, I’m always open to learning. I’ll try to check out Robert Reymond.

    Thanks again for your comment. Please do stop by — and comment — often.


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