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Article 1 — Of Faith in the Holy Trinity

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Posted by Mark Smith, 1 Mar 2017

Mark Smith begins our series of blog posts for Lent, on the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion.

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.

To be Protestant, we need to be catholic. That’s the key point of Article 1, and the sure foundation upon which all the Articles are built.

Hang on though, you might say — wasn’t the Reformation about being against Catholicism, about refuting its many errors?

But here’s the thing — the Protestant Reformers were so against the Roman Catholic Church because they saw that it had ceased to be truly catholic. The word ‘catholic’ means ‘universal’ — so to be ‘catholic’ means to believe what the Church has always believed. That’s what we’re affirming in the Apostles’ Creed when we say that we believe in ‘the holy catholic church.’

By the sixteenth century, the Church of Rome had deviated so far from the truths revealed in Scripture, that it could no longer be properly recognised as ‘catholic’ any more. It was the Protestants who were the true catholics — they weren’t breaking away from the church, they were returning to it. 

And so when the Anglican Reformers came to write the Articles, they made this conviction dramatically clear. They were going ‘back to basics’ — back to the true faith, the uncorrupted faith, the faith authoritatively proclaimed in God’s Word, the faith articulated by the church’s great champions of orthodoxy.

That’s why the 39 Articles don’t kick off with a ‘hot potato’ issue (like the role of the Pope), but by going back to the most central of all Christian beliefs: that there is one God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It’s easy for the doctrine of the Trinity to appear rather arcane — or even irrelevant — to us. Isn’t it the kind of thing that’s great for keeping academic theologians in a job, but has precious little to offer to the ordinary believer in the pew?

Well, it’s certainly true that Article 1 is rigorously and richly theological — it breathes the air of centuries of studious reflection on the biblical witness to the nature of God. Anglicans can have confidence here — what we believe wasn’t jotted down in a hurry on the back of a postcard, but handed down carefully across many hundreds of years.

In fact, good theology is not the enemy of pastoral relevance, but its necessary precondition. Article 1 is, indeed, supremely practical.

Look at the God it’s inviting us to consider.

Here is a God utterly unlike me. I’m mortal, he’s everlasting; I’m physical, he’s ‘without body’; I’m at the whim of my emotional ups and downs; he’s without passions. And the list goes on: I’m frequently powerless, he possesses ‘infinite power’; I’m frequently stupid, he’s perfectly wise; I’m frequently sinful, he is ‘goodness’ itself.

This relentless ‘distancing’ of God’s nature and character from ours is, perhaps paradoxically, profoundly consoling. I’m not putting my faith in another ‘creature’, or a bigger ‘Me’ in the sky, a mere projection of my own failings and hang-ups. The God revealed in the Bible, and affirmed in Article 1, is alone Creator (‘the maker and preserver of all things’) — and that means that he stands outside and above everything else.

The God who governs the cosmos, who numbers every hair on my head, is perfectly good and perfectly wise — he knows what he’s doing with my life. The God who holds the universe in being, and who gives me my every breath, is fully present to me at every moment, even when I’m feeling abandoned or alone. The God who is eternal, who is Life itself, can alone offer me true hope in the face of my own death, and amid the shadow of the grave.

But there’s still more to say, because this one God is ‘three Persons, of one substance, power and eternity’. God is not a lonely monad, reliant on his creation to enable him to relate and to love. God is relationship, God is love. He is the eternal, loving, joyful communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In other words, God doesn’t need me to be himself — before anything existed, he loved.

That too is wonderful, liberating news for us to hear. Because it means that God doesn’t create me as a part of a deal he struck, or relate to me on the basis of quid pro quo. It means that the salvation he offers doesn’t depend on me fulfilling certain requirements, but can be received by me freely as a pure gift, no strings attached. It is a salvation given by grace alone, through faith alone.

And that’s a truth that the Anglican Reformers especially wanted to recover. That’s why they went ‘back to basics’ in Article 1, back to the Trinity, back to God himself. Because they knew that to be Protestant, we need to be catholic.

For more on the idea that God is ‘without passions’, see this article from a recent edition of Churchman, or this short Formulary Friday post.

The Rev’d Dr Mark Smith is the Chaplain of Christ’s College, Cambridge and the new review editor of Churchman.

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