What is most surprising to modern Christian ears in the second chapter of the Second London Confession of Faith is the closing statement in the third paragraph of this article, which deals with the doctrine of the Trinity. This doctrine, this seventeenth-century text declares, “is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on him” (2.3). This particular phrase is drawn directly from the Congregationalist statement of faith, the Savoy Declaration (1658), which those who drafted the Baptist confession used as a source alongside the Presbyterian Westminster Confession (1646). This phrase may well have been drawn up by the Congregationalist theologian John Owen (1616–1683). Be this as it may, it must be a startling statement to contemporary Christian ears, for, in many Bible-believing congregations, one can go from one year to the next and hear little, if anything, explicitly taught about the nature of the Trinity. But here, it is asserted that this truth is the definitive doctrine upon which our walk with God depends. Moreover, it is this doctrine that provides Christians with strength, pleasure, and solace (the word “comfort” and its cognates carried all of these meanings in the seventeenth century). But if such be true, and those who drew up this document and first ratified it had solid ground from the Bible to believe that it was so, then our Christian churches in the present day are in a woeful state.
This paragraph on the Trinity, which concludes the Confession’s statement on God, runs thus in its entirety:
In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit, of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided: the Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son; all infinite, without beginning, therefore but one God, who is not to be divided in nature and being, but distinguished by several peculiar relative properties and personal relations; which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on him.
There are three major assertions made here about the biblical understanding of the nature of the Godhead. First, God is a triune being, all of whose “subsistences” or persons—which was the term used in the parallel paragraphs in the Westminster Confession and the Savoy Declaration—share one being, are of equal power, and all three of whom are eternal. This assertion rejects the heretical position that was developed in the fourth century known as Arianism, which denied the full deity of the Son and the Holy Spirit and argued that they were both creatures, albeit perfect ones.
The second assertion is that while each of the three members of the Trinity are each fully God and share one being, they are nonetheless distinguished from one another: the Father is unbegotten, while the Son is “eternally begotten of the Father” and the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son. This assertion rejects a second early Christian heresy known as modalism, which argued that there are no personal distinctions between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. They are all one person. But this creates serious problems for understanding the text of the Scriptures, which assume the real “threeness” of the persons. For instance how can the Son offer himself to the Father as a propitiation for sin and that by the power of the eternal Spirit as Hebrews 9:14 asserts, if there are no personal distinctions between the three members of the Godhead?
And then finally, there is the assertion with which we began this commentary on this paragraph: the doctrine of the Trinity is not a fine piece of philosophical speculation, or an optional extra to the gospel. If God is not a Triune being, none of us is saved and we are still in our sins. If God is not a Triune being, we have no power to live the Christian life and indeed no reason to do so.
The way in which these truths are expressed is rooted in language drawn from three major sources, two of which we have identified as the Westminster Confession and the Savoy Declaration. The affirmation about the way in which the persons are to be distinguished—“the Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son”—is drawn from the Presbyterian document and is also found in the Savoy Declaration. Ultimately, these affirmations are drawn from patristic discussions of the fourth century in which orthodox authors like Athanasius (ca.299–373), Basil of Caesarea (ca.329–379) and Gregory of Nyssa (ca.335–ca.395) searched the Scriptures to discover how God’s Word distinguished the persons. Some of the texts that they used in their arguments are cited alongside this statement in the Baptist confession: John 1:14 and 18, which assert the generation of the Son and John 15:26, which speaks of the Spirit’s procession.
The third source is the earliest Particular Baptist confession, the First London Confession, which was published in two major editions, in 1644 and in 1646. It is the wording of the latter edition about the Trinity that is basically reproduced in the first statement of this paragraph: “In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit, of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided.” Here we have a strong statement of the full deity of each of the persons of the Godhead and at the same time a rejection of any sort of tritheistic conception. The three are fully one in their sharing of “one substance, [one] power, and [one] eternity.” Again, the original confession cited biblical texts to support this statement: Matthew 28:19, the baptismal formula; 2 Corinthians 13:14, which has been well described as one of the most important statements in the Pauline corpus, for in this small verse we are brought face to face with the nature of the true God and how he has affected our salvation; and 1 John 5:7, which most conservative biblical scholars today do not recognise as part of the autographic text of 1 John. But truth be told, the authors of this confession could have cited a veritable multitude of texts to support the affirmation that God is a Triune Being, including Titus 3:4–6, 1 Corinthians 12:4–6, Ephesians 4:4–6, 1 Peter 1:2, Jude 20–21, and Revelation 1:4–5 for starters.
Particularly rich in Trinitarian language is the Gospel of John. In the Farewell Discourse, John 14–16, Jesus tells his disciples that “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). Other verses in this section of John’s gospel, however, assert that Jesus will be the One who will send the Spirit (John 15:26; 16:7). The Spirit is being sent in place of Jesus as “another Advocate” (John 14:16), but it is only through the Spirit’s presence in the disciples’ lives that Jesus, and the Father, are also present (John 14:23). Like the other New Testament authors, John does not use the word “Trinity”—that word was not invented until the late second century when the North African theologian Tertullian coined it—but all of the elements of Trinitarian faith are already here.
We began with the affirmation that the doctrine of the Trinity is vital for all Christian piety, or “communion with God.” Let us finish with praise. The Second London Confession of Faith defined a community, that of the Particular Baptists on both sides of the Atlantic, for another century and a half—it is only in the 1830s that one finds significant departures from the theology of this confession in this community. One of the most important hymn-writers of this community was the pastor-theologian Benjamin Beddome (1718–1795), who penned the following words that best capture how we ought to respond to this great truth of the Second London Confession 2.3:
Glory to the Three eternal,
Yet the great mysterious One,
Author of all bliss supernal,
Be unceasing honours due.
1st May 2021