The Episcopal Doctrine of God

If damnable heretic John Shelby Spong has taught us any truth it is that we cannot take for granted our doctrine of God. Leaders in The Episcopal Church should understand that niceness -- demonstrated by a refusal to have Spong defrocked -- is not a virtue when one of its ordained leaders denies not only the Episcopal faith but Christianity in toto. (See Spong's "Beyond Theism.") So, one may think that a post concerning the Episcopal doctrine of God is rather gratuitous; but, in light of Spong and his followers, highlighting our doctrine of God seems absolutely necessary.

This post assumes the presupposition of the existence of God, and not merely any god, but the Christian God of the Old and New Testaments -- the triune God (2 Cor. 13:13): God in the divine Person of the Father (Isa. 64:8; Matt. 6:9) of our Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:3), the latter of whom being God the Son (John 1:14, 18), as well as the divine Person of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 3:17), who is also God (Acts 5:3, 5). No defense will be constructed toward the existence of this the one and only living and true God (Jer. 10:10; 1 Thess. 1:9). What saith The Episcopal Church about God?

The first declaration written in our Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion concerns our triune God and faith in this triune God: "There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions [e.g., fickle moods or emotions]; 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 Spirit." Those who conscripted this affirmation were merely following the Athanasian Creed:
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. (emphasis added)
Now, our early fathers believed this matter of faith in the triune God is salvific in nature, meaning that belief in the Trinity is paramount for the salvation of the individual soul. Hence Unitarians and other heretics who deny the Trinity are not and will not be saved until they change their heretical views and embrace the one and only living and true God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Episcopal faith teaches as much in The Catechism of the Episcopal Church of 1801:

Concerning God as Father:
Q. What do we learn about God as creator from the revelation to Israel?
A. We learn that there is one God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.
Concerning God as Son:
Q. What do we mean when we say that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and became incarnate from the Virgin Mary?
A. We mean that by God's own act, his divine Son received our human nature from the Virgin Mary, his mother.
Concerning God as the Holy Spirit:
Q. What is the Holy Spirit?
A. The Holy Spirit is the Third Person of the Trinity, God at work in the world and in the Church even now.
Concerning One God in Three Persons:
Q. How do we recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives?
A. We recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit when we confess Jesus Christ as Lord and are brought into love and harmony with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation.
Concerning Knowledge of these truths:
Q. How do we recognize the truths taught by the Holy Spirit?
A. We recognize truths to be taught by the Holy Spirit when they are in accord with the Scriptures.
Being Episcopalian is to be authentically Christian regarding the Trinity. We know God in and through the Person of Jesus Christ. We know about Jesus Christ through the scriptures. The scriptures were inspired of the Holy Spirit, who ever seeks to point our gaze toward Jesus Christ, who then turns our spiritual eyes toward God the Father. Samuel Wells notes: "God is in Christ [cf. 2 Cor. 5:19]. This central statement of Christian belief crystalizes a number of distinct, but related, convictions . . . Jesus is the centripetal goal to which all searches for truth must look, and Jesus is the centrifugal force from which all goodness flows."1 Yet there is much more.

Jesus is not merely "from the heart of God," but Jesus is God, God the Son.2 Our notion of God is "shaped, or reshaped, in the light of having seen God in Christ."3 In the timeline of Israel, the Jewish believers in Jesus and the Gentile followers of Christ, God came to be believed, known, and propagated to others as Father, Son, and Spirit. How might we better understand how three Persons can be of one Essence?



Instead of thinking of the Trinity mathematically as 1+1+1=1, which is false, think of the triune God as 1x1x1=1. Each Person of the Trinity contributes dynamically toward a single Essence we call God. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not one in Person, which is impossible, but one eternally in thought, intention, and action. What one Persons thinks, intends and wills, if I may, so too the other two Persons think, intend, will: they think and exist metaphysically as a compound unity. They operate as a compound unity as the Hebrew scriptures suggest of a husband and a wife being "one" (Gen. 2:24). The two individuals do not become "one" person; they retain their distinctive personhood while both operating as a compound unity (1x1=1).

Samuel Wells continues an explanation of the Trinity: "This is a relationship of three 'persons,' distinct from one another, yet in one 'substance' -- sharing one being. They are equal with one another, yet each has different roles; even in these different roles, however, the whole of God is present in each one."4 God as triune, of Trinity, is paramount to our understanding of who God is, what God is like, and how God operates in His governance of the universe and humanity. But the Episcopal doctrine of God contributes far more toward our understanding of God than God's eternally trinitarian reality. What, for example, is God like in character and disposition?

If Jesus is "the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being" (Heb. 1:3 NRSV), then knowing what God is like must be understood in the Person of Jesus Christ. This is why we study the Christian scriptures: the more we know about Jesus' character the more we know the character of God. We study the life and teachings of Jesus, we have come to love God in and through Christ, and we want to imitate this God we have, by God's loving and proactive grace, embraced.

God is a God of justice, writes Episcopal priest Christopher L. Webber, and too often we have interpreted this attribute in legalistic hues: "The Pharisees of Jesus' time tried harder to please God than any people had ever done, and succeeded only in earning a reputation as narrow-minded, self-righteous legalists. Christians have often fallen into the same trap."5 He is, of course, right. But our self-righteousness merely serves as a reminder that we are guilty of crafting God in our image rather than that revealed in Scripture. Jesus was (and is) innately righteous and yet humble, gracious, and merciful. When we become self-righteous, we lose grace, and forfeit displaying mercy. But through Jesus we understand God as just, holy, yet gracious, merciful, and willing to forgive. Let us not, however, forget about God's unique and wondrous love.

God, writes St John, loved the world of sinners in this manner: He gave us His one and only unique Son in order that anyone who by grace believes and continues to believe in Jesus Christ will not be eternally separated from the love and presence of God but will maintain and possess eternal life with the triune God forever (John 3:16). Are we certain that God loves us in this manner? The same apostle writes: "We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us" (1 John 3:16). The death of Jesus Christ was absolute proof that God loves us, that Christ died for us, so that anyone among us who will, by the inward and enabling grace of the Holy Spirit, trust in Christ, such a soul shall be saved. This God, then, is love by virtue of nature: He does not merely possess love but is love; and His love is selfless and utterly self-sacrificial.

We cannot, unfortunately, exhaust the subject of God in one post. We could mention God's creativity and imagination, His eternality and attributes (omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence), His sovereign reign as King of kings, His interactions with humanity and angels, His right to be worshiped, obeyed, and loved, so forth and so on. But what we have presented here is sufficient to elicit wonder and curiosity and inspiration toward investigating further this unfathomable triune God that we Christians worship and love and follow in and through Jesus Christ.

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1 Samuel Wells, What Episcopalians Believe: An Introduction (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2011), 1.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., 2.

5 Christopher L. Webber, Welcome to the Christian Faith (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2011), 42.

ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.