Editor’s Note: This post is an excerpt from Truths We Confess by Dr. R.C. Sproul.
Chapter 2 of the Westminster Confession deals with the subject called “theology proper.” All study of the things of God is theology, but within the science of theology there are subdivisions such as Christology, pneumatology, soteriology, and eschatology. The “proper” study of theology is the study of God Himself. The doctrine of God as set forth in historic Reformed theology is not particularly distinctive. Statements and affirmations in Reformed confessions are similar to those in Anglican, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, and Baptist confessions. Paradoxically, then, the most distinctive characteristic of Reformed theology is its doctrine of God. This is so because Reformed theology, more than any other theology, consistently applies its understanding of God to every other doctrine in its theological system, making it altogether theocentric (God-centered) from start to finish.
- There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him; and withal, most just, and terrible in his judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.
This section begins with a string of attributes, or characteristics, of God. At the very beginning it affirms monotheism, the view that there is one and only one God.
In nineteenth-century scholarship, the redemptive-historical school argued that monotheism (belief in only one God) was a late development within Judaism. Religion, this school argued, normally develops from animism (which sees spirits dwelling in objects like stones and rivers) to polytheism (in which there are many gods, matched up with basic human concerns: a god for war, one for love, one for fertility, etc.) to henotheism (worship of one god without denying the existence of others) to monotheism. In the henotheistic stage, the Philistines had Dagon, the Canaanites Baal, and the Jews Yahweh. Each nation has its own god to take care of its needs. Evolutionary theorists of the nineteenth century argued that Judaism evolved from henotheism to monotheism under Moses or the eighth-century prophets. These theorists made this claim despite the fact that the Bible, from the very first page onward, affirms monotheism. Nothing is more central to Jewish theology than the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4–5). In Judaism and then in Christianity, there is one Most High God, who alone creates, sustains, and rules over all things.
The confession then qualifies it further: There is but one only, living, and true God, which points to His singularity. The God professed here is neither an abstract, impersonal force nor a philosophical concept, but a personal, living being. He is not imagined or invented but is real, alive, and the source of life itself.
The confession, at the beginning of its statement of theology proper, distinguishes between the true God and false gods. The conflict between godliness and evil ultimately focuses on idolatry. The most basic, fundamental sin, the most wicked propensity of fallen humanity, is to exchange the true God for one that we have made and can control. Whether God is replaced by crass, brutish idols fashioned out of stone and metal or redefined by philosophical concepts, He is stripped of His attributes. As the Apostle Paul tells us in Romans, there is an evil tendency in the human heart to exchange the truth of God for a lie, and serve and worship the creature rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25). At the very outset, the confession clearly affirms that God is one, that He is alive, and that there is only one true God.
This idea is often negotiated in our pluralistic society. Nothing is more repugnant to the politically correct atmosphere of our day than a claim to exclusivity. However, that is precisely what the confession claims: there is only one true God. All other gods are false pretenders and idols, and to worship another god incurs God’s wrath.