Oneness: Reflections on God’s Being and the Church

“We all believe in our hearts
and confess with our mouths
that there is a single
and simple
spiritual being,
whom we call God…the overflowing source of all good.”

-Article 1 of the Belgic Confession

“We believe and confess
one single catholic or universal church—”

-Article 27 of the Belgic Confession

“Question: What idea of the Essence and essential attributes of God may be derived from Divine Revelation?

Answer: That God is a Spirit, eternal, all-good, omniscient, righteous, almighty, omnipresent, unchangeable, all-sufficing to Himself, all blessed.”

-The Catechism of the Orthodox Church

Theology is an act of worship, and through participation in worship we are (or should be) doing theology. The early councils (Nicaea, Constantinople) got together not to form doctrine, but to clarify what was already there. They were concerned with the language used in describing God’s being and other doctrines the church had been teaching. Theology is done from the ground up, and is the language of the church. It is not merely some lofty, dry academic pursuit done in abstraction but is done within the context of participation in the community of believer’s where the Spirit of the Lord is. The importance of attending church cannot be a matter of choice like what to eat or what movie to watch. It is of the utmost importance for a Christian, to be in the community of other believers in which we are formed and shaped into the image of Christ through worship, communion, baptism and other rituals practiced by a church.

For years I attended non-denominational churches, and I would ask myself the question, “What is the point of going to church?”, year in and year out. This lead me to wonder about the nature of faith in relation to church. If I was growing deeper in my relationship with Christ outside of Sunday morning services, and when I came to Sunday morning service and at the end felt that I hadn’t learned anything or felt a movement of the Spirit, what purpose did it serve to come to this building? This became very tiresome over time, and lead me to not attend services nearly all together, outside of the ones I had been playing on the worship team. This lead me to return to the ancient tradition of the Church (both Eastern Orthodox, Patristics and Reformed), and what it has to offer those of us who have grown weary of an individualized, atomized Christianity void of any enchanted elements in worship and life.

I meet with a group of men from my church I currently attend (a Reformed Confessional church) every Thursday morning, and as we were discussing the 27th article of the Belgic confession, it occurred to me that there is something worth reflecting on the connection between the Oneness of God’s Being and the oneness of the holy catholic Church. When one begins doing and thinking about theology, the doctrine of God and Creation are where you begin. These shape, clarify and help to form the rest of your doctrines. In the Belgic Confession you can see this outlined; it starts with the doctrine of God and it is not until the 27th article that you begin talking about the doctrine of the Church.

 Reflecting on God’s Oneness; Divine Simplicity

The Belgic begins with the doctrine of divine simplicity that God is a single and simple spiritual being “eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, unchangeable, infinite…”, who is the overflowing source of all good. God is not a metaphysically complex being. God is not divisible into parts, He is eternally One. David Bentley Hart has strong words for those denying divine simplicity:

“If God is to be understood as the unconditioned source of all things, rather than merely some very powerful but still ontologically dependent being, then any denial of divine simplicity is equivalent to a denial of God’s reality.” (Hart, 2013, p. 134)

Tertullian as well cautions:

“If God is not one, there is no God.”

God does not have goodness, but simply is goodness. He is the ground from which all being subsists, ‘And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.’ (Colossians 1:17) Irenaeus on the simplicity of God:

“God is simple and incomplex; He is entirely feeling, entirely spirit, entirely thought, entirely mind, entirely the source of all good things.”

Herman Bavinck concludes that if simplicity is not held to, God is made up of parts and is therefore divided within Himself:

“If God is composed of parts, like a body, or composed of genus (class) and differentiae (attributes of differing species belonging to the same genus), substance and accidents, matter and form, potentiality and actuality, essence and existence, then his perfection, oneness, independence and immutability cannot be maintained. On that basis he is not the highest love, for then there is in him a subject who loves-which is one thing-as well as a love by which he loves-which is another.” (Bavinck, 2003, p. 176)

Creatures on the other hand are finite, and cannot be completely simple. Bavinck continues discussing God’s simplicity:

“God, however, is infinite and all that is in him is infinite. For that reason he is and can only be all-sufficient, fully blessed, and glorious within himself.” (ibid, p. 176)

His simplicity informs His unity, and His unity informs His immutability. This is a distinguishing mark between the Creator and the creation:

“The world is not like God in its essence, and therefore it has to be changeable and is not without a beginning; but these attributes of the world do not contradict the fact that its Creator is unchangeable and without beginning.” (St. John Damascene)

God is himself the source of all life and of every good thing; from Him all creatures derive their sufficiency. (Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, p. 73) His simplicity informs His sufficiency, for He needs nothing. He is not contingent upon anything, He himself to quote the answer in the Orthodox Catechism: “all-sufficing to Himself, all blessed.” The apostle Paul is explicit in God as one:

Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” -(1 Corinthians 8:4-6)

God is the unbounded ocean of being. ‘In Him we live and move and have our being’. (Acts 17:28)

Only from a doctrine of divine simplicity can we move into a proper doctrine of God’s Triunity. Prior to dealing with divine simplicity, Bavinck deals with the anthropomorphisms (human qualities describing God) we see in Scripture. I’ll summarize it quickly since it relates to God’s essence and attributes:

“It is God himself who deliberately and freely, both in nature and in grace, reveals himself, who gives us the right to name him on the basis of his self-revelation, and who in his Word has made his own names known to us on that same basis… Not a single one of them describe God’s being as such.” (Bavinck, 2003, p. 99)

The Church in relation to God’s Oneness

How is God’s simplicity, unity and oneness related to the oneness of the Church? It’s a question I’ve thought a lot about recently, and have a few quick thoughts.

The Reformed tradition historically has held to the idea of the church as both ‘visible and invisible’. The Westminster Catechism says this about the church:

“The . . . Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect . . . The visible Church, which is . . . (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion and of their children” (Westminster Confession of Faith, XXV.VI.I-II)

I’m not sure this is a helpful distinction to make. In Protestantism, the idea of the ‘invisible church’ has a dangerous influence for the Christian to go inward and neglect the important of Church attendance and membership. In the context of American individualism, one can rest assured that one is part of an ‘invisible church’ because after all, Christianity is about YOUR relationship with Christ. This becomes especially clear when a church does not hold to some sort of confession or catechism, attending church isn’t much about learning or formation with creeds and liturgy, it becomes a place of emotional self-expression and being entertained for an hour or so. I’m inclined to agree with Karl Barth’s approach to the ‘visible/invisible’ church, Wyatt over at PostBarthian.com has a wonderful post on Barth’s position here. I think Barth’s approach is helpful to understand, at least begin to understand, God’s Oneness and its relation to the Church. There is no salvation outside of God’s action of redemption and reconciliation towards us, the Belgic confession also makes it clear:

“We believe that since this holy assembly and congregation is the gathering of those who are saved and there is no salvation apart from it, people ought not to withdraw from it, content to be by themselves, regardless of their status or condition.” (Article 28)

Christians cannot be atomized and doing Christianity alone. There is no salvation apart from the church, and the church is a visible place. It is a tangible reality of God’s kingdom in which His grace is tangibly felt through participation in the community. As we draw closer together as a church, we become like Christ and in turn reflect God’s unity and Oneness within His eternal Triune life. I’ll close with a quote from Barth:

But yet are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light: which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.” We may immediately add to this saying the exposition and application of the threefold office of Jesus Christ given under Qu. 32 of the Heidelberg Catechism: “Why art thou called a Christian? Because through faith I am a member of Christ and partake of His anointing, that I may confess His name, offer myself to Him as a living sacrifice, and with a clear conscience wrestle in this life against sin and the devil, hereafter to reign with Him in eternity over all creatures.” If only the Protestant conception of the Church had been worked out and practiced along these lines!” (CD III.4, 161)

References:

Bavinck, H. (2003). Reformed Dogmatics (3rd ed., Vol. 2). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Hart, David Bentley (2013-09-24). The Experience of God. Yale University Press.

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