Blogging the Belgic (Article 1)
In the Brothers Karamazov by Fydor Dostoevsky, a character famously said, “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.” Such a statement highlights the fact that the existence of God has a profound effect on our lives and how we should live them. It is not just the question of whether or not a god exists that will affect our lives, but of what this god is like. You see, many people will say that they believe in a god (and most people in fact do!), but the god that people believe in is not always the God of the Bible; Christians are not the only theists in the world. Therefore, it is important not just to say whether there or not there is a supreme being but to define this supreme being, as this supreme being sets the tone for what is true about our world and therefore our lives.
The Belgic Confession begins not just by saying that there is a god but defines what Christians believe about this true God; Christians are not unique in being theists but the God that Christians believe in (and worship) is unique. Since this opening article is fairly short, I will quote it in full: “We believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths that there is a single and simple spiritual being, whom we call God -- eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, unchangeable, infinite, almighty, completely wise, just and good, and the overflowing source of all good.”
Now, I said the article was short -- not that the article was easy to understand! Let me try to do my best to boil down some of the fancy, theological words so you can see what they mean and why they are important. Before looking at those words, however, it is good to know that the confession stresses heartfelt belief -- it is not just a mental agreement or acknowledgement that there is a god, but something we “believe in our hearts,” which moves to our mouths so that we declare it to the world! The language is reminiscent of Romans 10:9-11 in terms of belief in our hearts and confession with our mouths.
We wholeheartedly believe that this God is a “single and simple spiritual being.” The first idea -- single -- might not be shocking, as Christians believe that there is one God, not many gods. We’ll talk about the Trinity in other articles and about how this single God is 3 persons, but here the confession follows the revelation of Scripture which starts by noting that there is a single God, that the Lord our God is one (Genesis 1; Deuteronomy 6:4) and that the other “so-called” gods are not gods at all. This contrasts any sort of “yin-yang” theology in which there are multiple gods fighting with each other (the devil is a created being, not an eternal god); there is only one God.
While the word “single” might be clear in that it means that there is only one God, what does “Simple” mean -- don’t we think God is complex and in many ways beyond description? How can he be simple? What the word simple means here is that God is not divided or a composite being made up of different traits (love + justice + mercy, etc.); everything he does reflects who he is and all his traits. This has implications for the Trinity (which are not different “parts” of God) but also as we think about his actions; it is not that he is loving sometimes and just sometimes but that he is always loving and just at the same time. We cannot pit God’s attributes against each other; he does not have multiple personalities. In fact, it is not that God does loving things but that he is love; his attributes are the same as his essence or his being. He is one God who always is true to himself. And while he is single and true to himself, he is also a Spirit. Only in the person of Jesus does God have a body; he is not an exalted man and does not have a body as we do but is a unique, spiritual being.
“Singular,” “Simple,” and “Spiritual” define God’s nature, but the confession goes on to discuss his attributes, what he is like. It is important to note in these that some of these attributes are ones that he shares with us -- what we call communicable attributes -- but some are unique -- what we call incommunicable qualities. Read through this list one more time: “eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, unchangeable, infinite, almighty, completely wise, just and good, and the overflowing source of all good.” What is communicable and what is incommunicable?
Incommunicable traits would be that God is eternal (not bound by time), incomprehensible (beyond our ability to know fully), invisible (not able to be seen or bound by sight and space), unchangeable (not shifting or oscillating), infinite (no boundaries), almighty (can do all things). We might have elements but God is in his own league on these. These traits should give us confidence: because God is not bound by time and space, I know He is present; because He is Almighty and all-powerful, I know he can act and do great things. Communicable traits are things like being wise, just, and good -- those are things that God calls for us to be in our own lives. The fact that God is those things shows us that the call is for us to be like God; things begin with God and that reality calls for our lives to be directed back towards God.
I love the way that it ends though, in a way that is unique in the confessions I have read or remember -- “the overflowing source of all good.” Every good and perfect gift comes from God (James 1:14). It is not just that God is good but that all good comes from him. We try to teach our kids that by ending the day asking them what made them happy -- then saying we should give thanks to God for that because all good things flow from him. It is why I love to sing the doxology: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”
The nature and attributes of God should cause us to do two things. First, they should cause us to worship God because he is unique and different. Second, in the ways that we can be like him, we should strive to be like him. That he is unique leads to worship; that we can be like him leads to striving for holiness. Therefore, this article should lead to doxology (praising God) and discipleship (living in light of God).
Now, this description of God raises the question -- how do we know this? How do we learn about the one true God and that he is like this? This brings us to the next article in the confession (showing that there is a logic and flow to it!).
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