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Lecture III: The Majestic, The Personal God

(Art. 1b)

Who is Eternall, Infinit, Unmeasurable, Incomprehensible, Omnipotent, Invisible: ane in substance, and zit distinct in thre personnis, the Father, the Sone, and the holie Gost.


Reformed teaching gives a twofold answer to the question, “Who is the one God?” In the first place, He is majesty (He is eternal, infinite, immeasureable, incomprehensible, omnipotent, invisible, as the Confession says). Secondly, He is a Person (since in His simple, majestic essence He is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit).

It is well to note at the start that this explanation is introduced in the Latin translation of the Confession by the expression “eundem etiam credimus . . .” The knowledge of the one and only God, the knowledge that He is and who He is, is the knowledge of faith. Faith knowledge in the sense used by Reformed teaching does not mean a knowledge which is based merely on feeling, which is peculiar to the individual and which therefore has no binding character for others. On the contrary, no more objective and strict form of knowledge can exist, and no type of knowledge can lay claim more definitely to universal validity than the knowledge of faith. It is certainly true that it differs completely from anything else which man calls knowledge, not only in its content, but in its mode of origin and form as well. But this difference consists precisely in the fact that it is bound, a fact which excludes all arbitrariness and chance. The very question “Who is God?” is not one of those questions which man puts to himself and is able either to put or not to put to himself. On the contrary, on every occasion that he raises it in earnest, he is compelled to raise it, because without his ever coming to think of it of his own accord, this question is put to him in such a way that it must be faced and cannot be evaded. Also in answering it he will not be able to choose, but he will have to obey—to read off, spell out and decipher the answer which is laid down for him. Faith knowledge is knowledge through revelation. And that simply means that it is a type of knowledge which is unconditionally bound to its object. And it is only to this object—only to God—that human thought can be bound in this way, since God Himself has bound it to Himself. “Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me” (Mk. 1, 17). “And they forsook all and followed Him” (Luke 5, 11). The binding of obedience to command here is the basis of the knowledge of faith. “And they forsook all and followed Him” is the foundation of the knowledge of God. And when this knowledge speaks, the binding of obedience to command remains. It does not speak with the freedom from obligation characteristic of a monologue or of what we call a discussion. It speaks with responsibility towards Him from whom it has heard what it has to say, as it completes a liturgical act. It is only subsequently, incidentally and really unintentionally that what is said in the knowledge of faith can also be said as something for which we are responsible to men and have to justify before them. But what is said in the knowledge of faith is rigorous, effective and universally valid for men, just because it is said originally and really to God and not to men.


Let us try now to estimate the formal character of faith knowledge, i.e. knowledge through revelation, the knowledge that God is Majesty and that He is a Person. Compared with the French, Dutch and other confessions the Scottish Confession shows originality by linking together directly the confession of faith in the God who is hidden in His eternity, infinity, etc., and the confession of faith in the same God as He is known to us as the God Who is Three in One, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. What does it mean by placing together the two—the God who is hidden and the God who is known?

When, in the first place, we look from the second truth towards the first, the meaning is as follows. Precisely because God makes Himself known to us in an unsurpassably intimate and definite way as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, He meets us as the One who is hidden, the One about Whom we must admit that we do not know what we are saying when we try to say who He is. Who is the Father, Whose children we are called to be in Jesus Christ? Who is He whom the Father has delivered up for us as His only Son, that in Him and through Him amends might be made for all the evil we do? Who is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of this Father and this Son, qui procedit ex patre filioque, through Whom we participate in all these benefits? We must answer that this One Being is eternal, infinite, immeasurable, incomprehensible, omnipotent and invisible. By each and all of these words we mean that He is above us, above space and time, and above all concepts and opinions and all potentialities. When we use all these words, we are praising His freedom and power. But what kind of freedom is that which is not bound to space and time or any potentiality known to man? By using all these words, we call Him the Lord, Jahweh Kyrios, but to what Lord will we compare Him? And how are we then to comprehend Him, when we call Him Lord? Thus God's revelation is precisely His revelation as the hidden God. And therefore faith in God's revelation can only give a very humble answer to the question “Who is God?” and it is faith which will confess God as the God of majesty and therefore as the God unknown to us. It is faith in God's revelation which is deadly fear of God's mystery, because it sees how God Himself veils Himself in mystery. Scepticism, which thinks that it also knows that God is hidden, has not reached the point of being such fear unto death. Scepticism has not been taught by God Himself that He is hidden, but is a human answer to a human question. One must know the darkness of Sinai and of Calvary and must have faith, to know the God who is above us and His hidden nature.

And now let us look from the first truth towards the second. This unknown God above us Who is known to faith, is not an unknown natural law, or an unknown cosmic riddle or unknown fate. He deals with man in the very act of confronting him in the darkness of Sinai and Calvary. By being above him, He is with him. By being far from him, He is also near him. Our words falter when we praise God's freedom and might, because they are greater than all that we can understand by freedom and might. But it is right and necessary so to praise Him, since it is in His majesty that He has given Himself to be known, has spoken of Himself and attested Himself as Him by whom, through whom and for whom we exist. (We exist by Him—for we are created by Him. We exist through Him—for we are sustained and supported through the peace which He grants us. We exist for Him—for we are destined for a future which lies beyond, for a beyond which lies in the future, and which consists in perfect life with Him.) In His whole incomprehensible majesty He is no stranger to us, but the Lord who in fullest reality surrounds us on all sides.

And though our words falter when we call Him Lord, yet He Himself has given us the ground and occasion for uttering these faltering words and He has given us the ground and occasion for being perfectly certain of His Lordship in the midst of the uncertainty which is and remains our portion. Moreover, we are aware of His being hidden and therefore of the faltering nature of our words and thus of our uncertainty only by His having made Himself known to us as the one who dwells in majesty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Thus faith in God's revelation can in all lowliness of spirit give nothing but a very courageous answer to the question “Who is God?” without thereby ceasing to be fear unto death before the hiddenness of God. It is faith which will confess God as the One Who possesses a name and therefore is a person and therefore is the God with Whom we are very well acquainted. It is faith which holds its ground before God, and in all soberness takes the presence of God into account, consorts with Him, listens and speaks to Him. It is faith which knows God as a child knows its father, or as a brother his brother or even as a man knows himself. There does exist also a speculative optimism which thinks it is very well acquainted with God in nature, in history and in the heart of man. But this optimism has, in principle, not reached the simplicity in which man may have intercourse with God as the God Whom he knows. It has not yet been taught by God Himself that we may really have intercourse with Him, because He has come so near to us. Such optimism is only a human answer to a human question. Something else must be known before we can say God is near us. To believe in the God who is near us and to recognise God's presence, we must be brought with Israel out of Egypt and must know the grace of Good Friday, Easter and Pentecost, and must have faith.


It is necessary to make clear what is contained in the conception “Person” if we intend to speak of God's personality. The doctrine of the Trinity, assumed in the Confessio Scotica as an indisputable truth, does not mean that in God there are three subjects. What it does say is that from eternity and to eternity God is the Subject, the Person, who establishes Himself and is founded on Himself, the Son on the Father, the Spirit on the Father and the Son. He is thrice named, and thrice truly exists as the One God, the one Subject, the one Person, but the Person who begets Himself, proceeds from Himself and Himself is master of His own existence and essence. As this Subject who is three in one, in virtue of the incomparable freedom and power in which He is what He is, without standing in need of any other being or predicate—as this Person God can and must be free and therefore have dominion over all existence which differs from His existence and over all essence which differs from His essence. Precisely as this Person He is Lord, is above us, the God of majesty, the hidden God.

God is therefore a Person in a way quite different from that in which we are persons. Our relations to others condition what we are. Our existence as persons requires a world around us with the conditions and limitations which such a world imposes. We are not persons possessed of majesty, and therefore we ought not to think that we are, though sometimes we do. Thus God is personal, but personal in an incomprehensible way, in so far as the conception of His personality surpasses all our views of personality. This is so, just because He and He alone is a true, real and genuine person. Were we to overlook this and try to conceive God in our own strength according to our conception of personality, we would make an idol out of God. We will avoid this, if in dealing with the question “Who is God?” we keep to the answer given by God Himself and therefore to God's revelation and thus to the knowledge of faith.


But it is also necessary to make clear what is contained in the conception “Majesty,” if it is to be applied to God. It is easy to misunderstand the Confession, as if by enumerating a number of attributes such as the eternal, infinite, etc., which are assumed to be perfectly clear, it seeks to offer a universally intelligible philosophy of the Absolute, to which the doctrine of the Trinity is in some amazing way to be attached. On this view the name Father, Son and Holy Spirit is just a special predicate of a subject with which we are already familiar, namely the Absolute. The traditional practice, which goes far back in theology, of speaking first of God's essence and attributes and only then of the three-in-oneness, has helped to bring about this misunderstanding. But God's majesty is to be measured just as little by the standard of the human idea of the Absolute as God's personality is to be measured by the standard of our view of human personality. The human idea of the Absolute, which we are accustomed to think of as identical with God, is the reflection of the world, and in the end the disastrous reflection of human personality. Once again, if we had equated this idea with God, we would have set up the image of an idol. We have not to draw our knowledge of who God is from what we think we know about eternity, infinity, omnipotence and invisibility as conceptions which bound our thought. On the contrary, we have to draw our knowledge of eternity, infinity, omnipotence and invisibility from what we can know about God, from what God has said to us about Himself. If we choose to take the first way or the various ways into which this first way is generally divided—the famous via negationis, the via eminentiae, and via causalitatis—we could as easily conclude with the definition “God is nothing” as with the second one “God is everything” or the third “God is the One in everything.” And with it all, what we have defined, would not be God. On the contrary, we would have defined in one way or another the essence of that which is not God, we would have defined the creature, and in the end, as Ludwig Feuerbach has irrefutably shown, the essence of man himself. If we do not wish to end by really defining ourselves, when we think that we are defining God, we can only take the second way and therefore hold fast to the incomprehensible majesty in which God meets us in His revelation, the majesty of His person as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. His majesty consists in His being the archetypal Person, i.e. truly, really and genuinely a person. As a divine Person, He has freedom over Himself and over all things, as we saw above. But as a Person, in distinction from those images of our imagination, He is One Who knows and wills, Who acts and speaks, Who as an“I” calls me “Thou” and Whom I can call “Thou” in return. This is the true name of God declared by Him Himself, and in it we must seek also the whole mystery of His majesty. Apart from this name it would have to remain completely hidden from us.