A scene from The Canterbury Psalter (12th century)
Benefits of Faith in the Trinity
“What benefits do we receive” from believing each doctrine we believe, asks the Heidelberg Catechism. This recurring question about benefits is a hallmark of the catechism, inviting the reader not to stop at mere affirmation, but to press on and embrace the practical results and the appropriate comfort that follow from faith. “What fruits do we derive,” “what comfort do we find,” and so on.
But when the Catechism comes to faith in the Trinity (questions 24 and 25), it does not raise this question. Why not? We don’t know; it doesn’t say. Perhaps the author, confident that his exposition of the persons of the Father (Q. 26-28), Son (Q. 29-52), and Holy Spirit (Q. 53 and following) was adequately focused on practical application, decided to hold his fire on the Trinity question itself. There can be, after all, something impertinent in asking “what’s that got to do with me” about the Trinity, the doctrine most definitely and obviously devoted to God’s own life in itself.
But the missing question would be a good one to ask and answer. Wouldn’t it be great to know what sort of answer the Heidelberg Catechism would give? Well in fact, one of the preachers most closely connected with the Heidelberg Catechism, Caspar Olevianus (1536-1587)1, asked exactly that question in 1567. Olevianus’ catechetical commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, A Firm Foundation,2 introduces its treatment of the Trinity with this query:
What benefits do we receive from knowing and believing that the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, His Son, and the Holy Spirit alone are the true God and that there is no other?
Olevianus gives three benefits:
1. By knowing the Trinity, we know that we have reached our highest good. Here’s how he puts it:
Since it is our highest good to know God aright, and since our bodies and souls were created and redeemed at a price so that they might be temples of God and He might be glorified in us, it is only through the knowledge of the one true God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—that we know that this takes place in us. As Christ said, “I will send you the Comforter” [John 16:7], and “The Father and I will come and make our home with him” [John 14:23]. See also 1 Corinthians 6:19, 20. (Foundation, 14-15)
This is an appeal to the character of salvation. Since the goal of salvation is trinitarian, believing intelligently in the Trinity enables us to participate in that triune work by which God indwells believers.
2. By knowing the Trinity, we can pray in a way that accurately picks out the true God. Olevianus says:
It has the benefit that when we pray, we know and think about which God we are calling upon—the true God… The heathen, on the other hand ,worship gods who are not really gods but inventions of the Father of lies, the Devil. (Foundation, 15)
3. By knowing the Trinity, we secure our worship of God, and distinguish our prayer from the prayer of those who believe in another god.
Third, it follows from this that unless we wish to apostatize from the highest good and forfeit the true invocation of God, we cannot also serve strange gods, either inwardly or outwardly. Rather we must separate our faith, prayer, and confession from he prayer and false worship of the Turks and other heathen, who do not worship the true God, as God bids in 2 Corinthians 6[:14-18] (Foundation, 15)
Olevianus applies this critical principle at length, explaining that the doctrine of the Trinity guards against all sorts of idolatry, from the gross idolatry of intending the wrong god, to the refined idolatry of worshipping the true god wrongly (an error he attributes to those “today in Popery and in the cases of many ‘half-evangelicals,’ who want to serve both idols and the gospel, both the Devil and God, at the same time.” (Foundation, 17)
Having addressed the question we wish the Heidelberg Catechism had posted, of why knowledge of the Trinity is beneficial, Olevianus’ Firm Foundation goes on to ask and answer a question that it has in common with the HC: “Since there is but one divine Being, why do you speak of three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?” This is recognizably Heidelberg Catechism question 25, and Olevianus’s answer also tracks closely: “In order that we might know and regard God in the way that He has revealed Himself in His Word and made Himself known.”
Images: At the top, a detail of the title page of Caspar Olevianus’ Vester Grund: das ist die Artikel des alten waren ungezweiffelten christlichen Glaubens etc., Heidelberg, 1567. At the bottom, a clip of the key passage on page 20, asking what benefits we get from faith in the Trinity. Located through Olevianus’ page at PRDL. Vester Grund 1567 is the text translated by Bierma as A Firm Foundation (see below).
1I’m no expert in these historical questions, but I’ve become persuaded that the Heidelberg Catechism is best thought of as being chiefly the work of Zacharias Ursinus, and that while Ursinus had the help of several other people, there is no compelling reason to single out Olevianus from that group as especially deserving recognition as co-author.
2A Firm Foundation: An Aid to Interpreting the Heidelberg Catechism. Caspar Olevianus, edited and translated by Lyle D. Bierma. Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought, vol 1, Richard Muller (series editor). Grand Rapids: Baker and Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1995.