Article 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.
In this time of Lent, Scott Gunn has decided to look into the provenance and usefulness of the traditional Anglican series of 39 Articles of Faith. I do not propose to copy every one of his 39 treatments on my web-site, but I thought that this opening session – on what might be called a pivotal ‘Article of Faith‘, might help some of us put into perspective what definition we might find helpful (or indeed believable) for Anglicans today.
At least one of the sections of the theological description of God – as ‘without passions”, could well be countered by the following reality occuring within the scriptural passages about the person of Jesus, thus : ‘Jesus Christ, the perfect “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) – seems to have had passions’. This fact cannot be denied. Therefore, what ought one’s attitude to be towards the statement, quoted here in the first article of Faith? – “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions”.
What this essay by Scott Gunn seems here to suggest is that the Greek thought system which prevailed in the minds of the author(s) of the 39 Articles, may no longer be helpful to us – in terms of trying to understand the nature of God. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the 39 Articles seem to have ‘slipped away’ out of our common usage within the modernised Provinces of the communion, because they no longer adequately describe what we might best understand as the ‘Attributes’ of God in Trinity.
The old idea of God as ‘remote’ from our common humanity can no longer be sustained within an adequate theology of the Incarnation of Christ – who shared our flesh, through the BVM, his mother, and was subject to the same pains and passions as we are heir to. The difference is, he was also Son of God, Light of Light – as well as Son of Man, Redeemer and Saviour of ALL. However, The Lord’s Passion is what we will be celebrating, in order to find the meaning of His Resurrection.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch