Without Apology: The Mystery of the Holy Trinity
“O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? Or who hath been His counsellor? Or who hath first given to Him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of Him, and through Him, and to Him, are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.” — Romans 11:33-36
An explanation is in order regarding our title “Without Apology: The Mystery of the Holy Trinity.” Holy Scripture commands Christians to be ever ready to give a defense of the Gospel hope God has wrought in us, with meekness and Godly fear, to every one who asks us (I Peter 3:15). If we are referring to such an answer or defense (“apology” in this sense), then we stand ready always, by the grace supplied by God alone through His Word, to do so. That is not the type of apology to which our title refers. As we are using “apology” in this article, we are referring to “an acknowledgment expressing regret, a request for pardon because we have caused offense.” When we confess the true doctrine of the mystery of the Holy Trinity, earnestly contending for the faith once delivered unto the saints (Jude 1:3), we offer no such apology nor should we!
That is not to say that such a bold, clear confession of this sublime, transcendent self-revelation of the only true God will not result in people taking offense at the truth of God! Satan, the world and the sinful flesh of all human beings stand at enmity against God’s truth and oppose it as utter foolishness, unable to receive any of it, due either to Satan’s agenda (on his own part) or to the carnal mind (on the part of natural man), as Paul writes of the unconverted: “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them because they are spiritually discerned” (I Corinthians 2:14).
In our present evil age, the false doctrine of universalism, the philosophy of existentialism, the position of relativism, and the politically correct ecumenism so popular today combine with other elements to make every exclusive doctrine of orthodox, Biblical Christianity an object of ridicule, contempt and persecution. For example, people take offense at the truth of the only true God, the Holy Trinity. In the face of such a reaction we, of course, offer no apology but rather continue to proclaim what God has clearly revealed about Himself in His Book, the Holy Bible, unmoved by the fear or favor of men, solely by the grace and power of our God (Acts 4:20; Matthew 10:28; I Corinthians 15:10).
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is a mystery. How so? Despite the fact that man can know of God’s existence and even some of His divine attributes from His creation (Romans 1:19-20), man cannot know anything whatsoever about the Holy Trinity specifically without God’s written revelation of Himself. Why is this? God dwells in the light no man can even approach, as it is written of “the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords” (I Timothy 6:15b): “Who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto, whom no man hath seen nor can see, to whom be honor and power everlasting. Amen” (I Timothy 6:16).
If sinful, mortal man would know anything correctly and definitely about God, God Himself must reveal it. God has chosen to reveal Himself in two ways: In the realm of nature, His own creation speaks of Him (Psalm 19:1-3; Romans 1:20); and in His Holy Word, the Bible, He clearly reveals Himself, even by name (Isaiah 42:8; etc.). The first venue provides man with a very limited knowledge. From the divine works of creation and from the action of God in nature and in human history, together with the divine Law still written, to some extent, in the heart of all human beings, man knows by nature that God exists as a personal, eternal, holy and just, all-powerful and all-knowing Creator, Preserver, and Ruler of the entire universe (cf. Romans 1:20; Acts 14:15-17; Romans 2:14-15). Obviously the so-called “natural knowledge of God” cannot give man what he needs to know about God and salvation. Therefore those only having such knowledge are described by God in Holy Writ as “[being] strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12).
The “revealed knowledge of God” comes from the Holy Bible, including God’s revelation of Himself as one God in essence, but three distinct (but not separately subsisting) persons: Father, Son and Holy Ghost, the Holy Trinity, Three-in-One and One-in-Three! Holy Scripture clearly reveals to all men that God is one in essence (Deuteronomy 6:4; I Corinthians 8:4) and that the one God is Father, Son and Holy Ghost (Matthew 28:19; II Corinthians 13:14, Matthew 3:16-17). This “revealed knowledge” of the Only True God is brought to man and wrought in man’s heart only by God’s self-revelation in His Word, the Holy Scriptures; and it includes “the covenants of promise” (Ephesians 2:12), the manifestation of the Gospel, without which the true God cannot be known.
Why is it so vital, so necessary, to have such a truly Christian knowledge? Dr. Franz Pieper gives us the Scriptural answer to that question in these words:
The natural knowledge of God cannot deliver us from an evil conscience. The Christian knowledge of God, however, calms the troubled conscience. In fact, it is our salvation. Scripture does not propose the doctrine of the Trinity as an academic question or a metaphysical problem. With the proclamation that in the one eternal God there are three Persons of one and the same divine essence, Scripture combines the further gracious message that God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son into death as the Savior from the guilt of sin and death; that in the fullness of time, the eternal Son became incarnate and by His vicarious satisfaction reconciled the world to God and that the Holy Ghost engenders faith and thus applies to man the salvation gained by Christ. When the Christian confesses, ‘I believe in God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,’ he is saying, ‘I believe in that God who is gracious to me a sinner’ (Christian Dogmatics, Vol. I, p. 378).
We, therefore, recognize how important this Christian knowledge truly is and confess it boldly, renouncing any and all fellowship with deniers of the Holy Trinity and recognizing all such as outside the Christian Church. The Apology to the Augsburg Confession declares on the basis of clear Scripture: “This article we have always taught and defended, and we believe that it has, in Holy Scripture, sure and firm testimonies that cannot be overthrown. And we constantly affirm that those thinking otherwise are outside of the Church of Christ, and are idolaters, and insult God” (Apology, Article I, Triglotta, p. 103).
Since the true Christian knowledge of God consists in this, “that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the Substance [Essence]” (Athanasian Creed), we must ever and always stand fast without compromise over against all who deny the three Persons or deny the one divine Essence.
The Christian knowledge of God is entirely unique and exclusive to Christianity. The false religions are either monotheistic or polytheistic. In either case man can comprehend the “godhead,” since to have one person with one essence or many persons with many separate essences is commonplace and finds a direct human analog in an individual or group of individuals. And this is no surprise since having and worshipping such a “godhead” or multiple “godheads” is simply the essence of gross, carnal idolatry.
The Apostle explains in his Epistle to the Romans: “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things… who changed the truth of God into a lie and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen” (Romans 1:22-23, 25). The false religions of the world all have one thing in common: God has become a god (an idol) and is not transcendent, sublime and beyond human understanding as He is revealed in the Scriptures. No wonder! In false religions, man makes God in his own image!
But in the only true religion, Christianity, we have in God’s self-revelation the Holy Trinity. At once we stand in awe at a doctrine that transcends human understanding: Three in One, One in Three! This is above and beyond all we could imagine! There is no human analog. Even symbols fail fully to represent the sublime Holy Trinity! Consider our theme verse cited under the title above. As believers we are awe-struck in holy devotion and worship by the depth, the fulness, immensity and inexhaustible abundance of the riches or fulness of God’s perfection. In particular, we have both God’s wisdom and His knowledge mentioned.
God is called in Holy Writ “the only wise God” (I Timothy 1:17); He alone is wise (Romans 16:27). This means more than simply the fact that no other God exists. The term “wisdom” refers to the infinite practical knowledge of the Holy Trinity in discerning the best means to attain His desired ends. Since man is utterly unable to fathom the depths of God’s unsearchable wisdom, we must simply stand before Him in adoration and praise. In such holy awe, we acknowledge that His self-revelation to us as the Holy Trinity is also wise and dare never question or criticize it! We have been “taught of God” (John 6:45) and must therefore yield humbly to the instruction of our Divine Teacher!
The same must be said in reference to God’s knowledge which is complete and far beyond human comprehension. What we can and do know about God He Himself has “gifted” to us by His self-revelation. “God, who in His essence is invisible and unknowable to us, has through His Word stepped out of His hidden invisibility and through His Word…has made Himself known to us” (Franz Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, Vol. II, p. 40). But apart from the Word of God, in all matters not revealed therein, the mind of the Holy Trinity underlying His “unsearchable…judgments and His ways past finding out” is unknown and unknowable to us here on earth. Thus our text exclaims, “For who hath known the mind of the Lord? Or who hath been His counsellor?” (Romans 11:34). Given the obvious answer, “No one!”, we should ever remember never to question what God reveals to us in His Word. And that revelation includes the sublime and transcendent teaching regarding the Holy Trinity.
Nor should we be surprised in the least that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is beyond human logic and understanding. For the LORD declares, “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,’ saith the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
Why would God’s true nature not be above and beyond human logic and so-called rational thought? It is written in the Book of Job: “Canst thou by searching find out God? Canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection? It is as high as heaven; what canst thou do? Deeper than hell; what canst thou know? The measure thereof is longer than the earth and broader than the sea” (Job 11:7-9). Indeed, “touching the Almighty, we cannot find Him out…” (Job 37:23). We must be content with what He has revealed regarding Himself and accept it as true, relying on it with firm trust and confidence.
Our theme text continues: “Or who hath first given to Him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again?” (Romans 11:35). How could any creature, notably a sinful man, place God in a position in which God was obligated to him? What possible way could there be for man to place God in his debt? How could it be that God owed man anything? How is it then that man thinks he has the right to question God or issue any sort of demand to God? Yet we often behold sinful man acting as if God were bound to do things man’s way! When it comes to God’s self-revelation in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, we find such sheer audacity readily displayed by all those that criticize and judge God’s Word. The Islamic Koran is an example of such blasphemous criticism: “Believe in God and in His messenger* but say nothing of the Triad. Avoid that, and you will be better off. There is only one God. Far be it from Him to have a son! …How can the Creator of heaven and earth have a son, since He has no wife?” (Quoted by Franz Pieper from its citation in Baier-Walther, I, 131, in Christian Dogmatics, Vol. I, p. 81, footnote #11). [Presumably Mohammed. –Ed.]
Anyone who sets himself up as judge over the Holy Trinity commits blasphemy and, in exalting himself over God, is an idolater, making himself God!
Finally, our theme text tells us: “For of Him, and through Him, and to Him, are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:36). Our concluding verse speaks of the Holy Trinity in His sublime majesty. God is Himself all in all, the absolute independent one, who is the beginning, middle and end of all things good, omnipotently, omnisciently and omnipresently ruling everything according to His perfect wisdom and knowledge. He is the origin of all good things: “But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by Him” (I Corinthians 8:6). He is also the medium through which all things exist and continue: “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by His Son, whom He hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also He made the worlds; who, being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person and upholding all things by the word of His power when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:1-3). Moreover, God is the final goal and purpose of everything: “For by Him were all things created that are in heaven and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers; all things were created by Him and for Him; and He is before all things; and by Him all things consist” (Colossians 1:16-17). Thus everything finally comes “to” Him. Mark well the threefold emphasis.
And yet note how the verse concludes with glory to the one true God. Martin Chemnitz states: “The three works of the Trinity according to Romans 11:36 are indivisible; for St. Paul does not add ‘To them be the glory,’ but ‘To whom be glory.’” (Franz Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, Vol. I, p. 424, footnote #57). We must, therefore, accept and believe the three persons in the one divine essence, neither confounding the persons nor dividing the essence.
Yes, to the Holy Trinity belongs all the glory! (I Corinthians 10:31). True worship of God gives all the glory to the only true God, the Holy Trinity, for all the gracious and good things He has done for us as Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier (Psalm 126:3). In particular, we praise the Father for sending His only-begotten Son to be our Redeemer (I John 4:9); we praise the Son for His redemptive work in life and death (Revelation 1:5-6), in keeping the Law for righteousness and paying the blood-ransom for sin (Matthew 5:17; I Timothy 2:5-6); and we praise the Holy Ghost for working faith and renewal within us in applying all the Gospel benefits to us (I Corinthians 6:11). We thank the Holy Trinity for revealing Himself, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, to us in His Word (I Timothy 1:17).
Without apology, we believe, teach and confess the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, by His grace alone!
— E. J. W.