Thursday, October 30, 2008

John Calvin: a tri-theistic heretic???

In the recently published book, His Broken Body, the Eastern Orthodox professor, Laurent Cleenewerck (go HERE for an abbreviated biography), contributed the following:

Paul Owen [for context, see THIS ESSAY] is correct when he notes that the Western tradition tends to the conclusion that each Person is autotheos, but it should be clear that this has never been the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. This heresy of tri-theism was only proclaimed by John Calvin who denounced the eternal generation of the Son as “an absurd fiction”. (Page 324 – bold emphasis mine.)

Shortly thereafter we read:

For whatever reason, what we call the Western tradition has tended to theologize on the opposite extreme of Arianism. As we have mentioned, the early tendencies of the Roman Church were on the Modalistic side, and it is in Reformed / Protestant Western Christianity that we find such aberrations as ‘Oneness’ theology and the triple autotheos of John Calvin. (Page 341.)

Concerning the term autotheos, and its usage by John Calvin, the esteemed Reformed theologian, B. B. Warfield wrote:

The circumstance that Dr. Charles Hodge, writing three centuries afterwards (1559-1871), reproduces precisely Calvin's position may intimate to us something of the historical significance of Calvin's discussion of the Trinity. Clearly Calvin's position did not seem a matter of course, when he first enunciated it. It roused opposition and created a party. But it did create a party: and that party was shortly the Reformed Churches, of which it became characteristic that they held and taught the self-existence of Christ as God and defended therefore the application to Him of the term autotheos; that is to say, in the doctrine of the Trinity they laid the stress upon the equality of the Persons sharing in the same essence, and thus set themselves with more or less absoluteness against all subordinationism in the explanation of the relations of the Persons to one another. When Calvin asserted, with the emphasis which he threw upon it, the self-existence of Christ, he unavoidably did three things. First and foremost, he declared the full and perfect deity of our Lord, in terms which could not be mistaken and could not be explained away. The term autotheos served the same purpose in this regard that the term homoousios had served against the Arians and the term hypostasis against the Sabellians. No minimizing conception of the deity of Christ could live in the face of the assertion of aseity or autotheotēs of Him. This was Calvin's purpose in asserting aseity of Christ and it completely fulfilled itself in the event. In thus fulfilling itself, however, two further effects were unavoidably wrought by it. The inexpugnable opposition of subordinationists of all types was incurred: all who were for any reason or in any degree unable or unwilling to allow to Christ a deity in every respect equal to that of the Father were necessarily offended by the vindication to Him of the ultimate Divine quality of self-existence. And all those who, while prepared to allow true deity to Christ, yet were accustomed to think of the Trinitarian relations along the lines of the traditional Nicene orthodoxy, with its assertion of a certain subordination of the Son to the Father, at least in mode of subsistence, were thrown into more or less confusion of mind and compelled to resort to nice distinctions in order to reconcile the two apparently contradictory confessions of autotheotēs and of theos ek theou of our Lord. It is not surprising, then, that the controversy roused by Caroli and carried on by Chaponneau and Courtois did not die out with their refutation; but prolonged itself through the years and has indeed come down even to our own day. Calvin's so-called innovation with regard to the Trinity has, in point of fact, been made the object of attack through three centuries, not only by Unitarians of all types, nor only by professed Subordinationists, but also by Athanasians, puzzled to adjust their confession of Christ as "God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God" to the at least verbally contradictory assertion that in respect of His deity He is not of another but of Himself. (B. B. Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity”, in Calvin and Calvinsim, volume V of The Works of Benjamin B. Warifield – Baker Book House, 1981 reprint, pages 251, 252; note: I have transliterated all Greek terms for my readers.)

Warfield concluded his essay with:

In his assertion of the autotheotēs of the Son Calvin, then, was so far from supposing that he was enunciating a novelty that he was able to quote the Nicene Fathers themselves as asserting it " in so many words." And yet in his assertion of it he marks an epoch in the history of the doctrine of the Trinity. Not that men had not before believed in the self-existence of the Son as He is God: but that the current modes of stating the doctrine of the Trinity left a door open for the entrance of defective modes of conceiving the deity of the Son, to close which there was needed some such sharp assertion of His absolute deity as was supplied by the assertion of His autotheotēs. If we will glance over the history of the efforts of the Church to work out for itself an acceptable statement of the great mystery of the Trinity, we shall perceive that it is dominated from the beginning to the end by a single motive - to do full justice to the absolute deity of Christ. And we shall perceive that among the multitudes of great thinkers who under the pressure of this motive have labored upon the problem, and to whom the Church looks back with gratitude for great services, in the better formulation of the doctrine or the better commendation of it to the people, three names stand out in high relief, as marking epochs in the advance towards the end in view. These three names are those of Tertullian, Augustine and Calvin. It is into this narrow circle of elect spirits that Calvin enters by the contribution he made to the right understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity. That contribution is summed up in his clear, firm and unwavering assertion of the autotheotēs of the Son. By this assertion the homoousiotēs of the Nicene Fathers at last came to its full right, and became in its fullest sense the hinge of the doctrine. (Ibid. pages 283, 284.)

So, is one to conclude with the venerable Warfield that Calvin’s, “assertion of the autotheotēs of the Son”, “marks an epoch in the history of the doctrine of the Trinity”; or, should one side with our Eastern Orthodox professor, denouncing Calvin’s “triple autotheos” as heretical and an aberration?


Grace and peace,

David

9 comments:

Chris said...

David,

Thanks for the post. It helps clarify for me why I had never heard of the notion of God as fount of divinity till college. Question: if Calvin denied the Son's eternal generation in favor of an autonomous deity, how did he explain the title "Son" as applied to Christ?

David Waltz said...

Hi Chris,

You asked the following:

>>Question: if Calvin denied the Son's eternal generation in favor of an autonomous deity, how did he explain the title "Son" as applied to Christ?>>

I must admit up front that I purposely intended my initial post to be a bit equivocal; and this, to get my readers to ask certain questions of themselves, and others, concerning their presuppositions when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity.

Typically, those who adhere to a Western/Augustinian form of the Trinity charge those who embrace an Eastern/Cappodocian view with Tritheism, while latter accuse the former of Modalism. What puzzles me is Dr. Cleenewerck’s charge of Tritheism concerning Calvin’s musings—for Calvin’s position is unquestionably within the Western tradition. I am still thinking this over…

As for your question, Calvin rejected Origen’s doctrine of eternal generation, opting instead for a single event. Calvin wrote:

“…he is the Son of God, because the Word was begotten by the Father before all ages.” (Institutes, 1.13.23.)

But, and this importantly, this begetting of the Son by the Father was strictly relational, of the person, not the essence.

For a detailed analysis of Calvin’s thought on the Trinity see Warfield’s insightful essay, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity”. An online version is available HERE.


It sure seems to me that the more one attempts to explain the Trinity the more it becomes a “mystery”.


Grace and peace,

David

TOm said...

David and Chris,
I do not know what to make of the EO Trinity at all. It seems that some might call historic Western Christians modalists and thereby suggest that they have taken the one homoousian too far and only give lip service to the three persons. These EOs are sometimes called Tri-theists and LDS/non-LDS scholars have called them Social Trinitarians.

Recently Photius Jones made it very clear that he believes the proper understanding of one God is, the Father. Here (2:43pm 22Oct08 Comment):
http://consciousfaith.wordpress.com/2008/10/22/lonergan-on-subordinationism-in-the-early-fathers/
From his perspective, I can see how Calvin’s view could be called tri-theistic. God the Son and God the Father are two persons who possess asiety therefore Calvin is a tri-theist. Of course this view would be often called Arianism by Western Christians (and in my mind, I think Augustine and Athanasius would be concerned).

I think part of this issue is what I mentioned to you recently. When it comes to discussing revelation about God, there are a group of EO Christians who seem to say that the “law of non-contradiction,” or “dialectic reasoning,” or ??? are inappropriate. To me it is saying that God is so unknowable all we can do is list revelations, but we cannot define what those revelations me. I fail to see how such a view could be part of the Eastern tradition where Eastern Bishops participated (and in many instances provided much of the intellectual reasoning) in 7 Ecumenical Councils seemingly devoted to reasoning about revelation.




I think Arianism, Tritheism, and Modalism are ways of resolving the Trinity conflict.
I am not aware of any non “via negativa” way of defining the Trinity that will not lean towards one of those three heresies. I do not think there is ultimately any middle ground between what has been called heresy. If the Social Trinitarians are Tritheist heretics, the Augustinian Trinitarians are modalist heretics, and Photus Jones is an Arian heretic; I think we have defined ourselves into a zero space box that does not exist.
Charity, TOm

David Waltz said...

Hi Tom,

You posted:

>> These EOs are sometimes called Tri-theists and LDS/non-LDS scholars have called them Social Trinitarians.>>

Me: I do not know for sure who coined the phrase “Social Trinitarianism”, but it certainly has many common features with the EO view. More than a just a hand-full of prominent Evangelicals have embraced the concept, including the Reformed scholar Cornelius Plantinga Jr. But, as I am sure you know, the charge of Tritheism has been leveled against them by many of their Augustinian ‘brothers’.

>> Recently Photius Jones made it very clear that he believes the proper understanding of one God is, the Father. Here (2:43pm 22Oct08 Comment):
http://consciousfaith.wordpress.com/2008/10/22/lonergan-on-subordinationism-in-the-early-fathers/>>

Me: That was a very interesting thread. I believe that Photius (and his friend Lucian), is guilty of reading his fully developed EO theology back into the pre-Nicene Fathers.

>> From his perspective, I can see how Calvin’s view could be called tri-theistic. God the Son and God the Father are two persons who possess asiety therefore Calvin is a tri-theist.>>

Me: IMHO, this could only be maintained if one ignores the fact that ALL adherents of the Augustinian tradition start with the ONE, divine essence. Any sense of aseity on the part of the ‘persons’ flows from that ONE, singular, infinite essence. The problem, it seems to me, for the Augustinians is trying to explain how the ‘persons’ can be truly distinct from one another if they are ONE, infinite essence—hence the typical charge of modalism.

>> Of course this view would be often called Arianism by Western Christians (and in my mind, I think Augustine and Athanasius would be concerned).>>

Me: When you get chance, could you elaborate a bit more on the above? (I ask this, for I am not aware of any form of Arianism which would ascribe aseity to anyone/person other than God the Father.)

>> I think part of this issue is what I mentioned to you recently. When it comes to discussing revelation about God, there are a group of EO Christians who seem to say that the “law of non-contradiction,” or “dialectic reasoning,” or ??? are inappropriate. To me it is saying that God is so unknowable all we can do is list revelations, but we cannot define what those revelations me.>>

Me: David Bradshaw in his Aristotle East and West attempts to defend Palamas (and the EO tradition in general) by directing his foil at Aquinas, but ultimately, I think he fails—fact is, as you point out, the EO are quite willing to live with some stark contradictions within their paradigm.

>> I fail to see how such a view could be part of the Eastern tradition where Eastern Bishops participated (and in many instances provided much of the intellectual reasoning) in 7 Ecumenical Councils seemingly devoted to reasoning about revelation.>>

Me: Good point. I think what we see on the part EO polemicists is yet another attempt to read the post-Palamas tradition back into the earlier Fathers.

Have more to say, but need to get ready for church.


Grace and peace,

David

Lucian said...

Yeah ... we don't even believe in the same God, as it turns out. Sad.

David Waltz said...

Hi Lucian,

If you have the time (and desire), could you comment on what you perceive to be the most important differences?

Thanks much in advance,

David

Lucian said...

0. The Trinity.
1. Anthropomorphism. (West)
2. Redemption. (direct implication of #1. above)
3. Essence/Energies. (connected to #0 above).

The Orthodox teaching concerning these is not only "public domain", but also in need of no defense (anyone who reads the [Eastern] Fathers knows what and why we believe what we do). "Why", because that's what our Fathers taught us, and we do nothing more than being true to their teaching; and "what", because neither the content of the writings of the Fathers, nor the tenets of the Orthodox faith, are a secret to anyone (except of course for those who don't know, don't ask, don't read, or just don't care). -- Tolle et lege! :-)

The West is sadly de facto Augustinian, but (happily) not necessarily de fide so: there's nothing stopping, say, a Catholic, for instance, believing as we do: our Fathers are theirs as well. And the same goes for ol'-style Protestants also.

-------------------------
WHAT WE BELIEVE:

0. The Trinity: the only things NOT shared are the so-called personal attributes: the fatherhood belongs to the Father alone; the sonship belongs to the Son alone; the procession belongs to the Spirit alone. All others are shared and are called divine Essence and divine Energies.

This means that:
-- there is NO God-the-GrandFather (i.e., the Father has no Father, since He's the only divine Person possessing Fatherhood).
-- there is no God-the-GrandSon, since the Son cannot be Father, nor can anyone else except Him among the Three be a Son of anyone.
-- no Filioque, since the Son does not share in His Father's personal attribute.
-- no Spirituque, since the Spirit does not share in the Father's unique characteristic either.

-- we don't believe in ADS either (the divine Essence is indeed simple and uncompounded, according to the Fathers, but "there's more to Acrobat than Raeder", and there's more to God than Essence) -- and because we don't believe in ADS, we are not of the opinion of Augustine, that if Begetting is from One, then Procession *HAS TO* be from Two, since *otherwise* it would be *the same thing* as the former, and the Son and the Spirit would be brothers (!!), according to the same Augustine. -- He needs spiration to be from Two -- we don't even need it; and it runs contrary to our understanding of personal versus trinitarian attributes. (Yes, the Fathers mention explicitely that there are only two kinds of attributes: those shared by ALL THREE, and those shared by ONLY ONE).

-- the West has tried to redeem the Filioque by saying that "the Spirit proceeds from Two AS IF from One" -- but that's Patristically problematic on at least two or three Grounds: The Source is ALWAYS the Father, never someone else; and because they regarded that as a Personal attribute of the Father; and because there's no such thing as an attribute shared by two (only by one OR by all three -- never ever by two). There is no such thing anywhere to be found in the Fathers, i.e., some sort of a sub-Trinitarian or infra-Trinitarian Union to the exclusion of the Third.

-- here's a Patristical picture od why we don't need spiration to be from two: Seth (Adam's son) was begotten from Adam's loins, and Eve (meaning "Life"; a symbol of the Life-giving Spirit) was taken from his rib. Each is a simple movement of generation, yet very distinct one from another. -- this was directed against the Arians, who were all Pneumatomachs, because they said: "if the Spirit is NOT *begotten*, how can it even share the same Essence?".


3. The Energies or Graces or attributes of God [we know that they are His "because the Bible says it so"] are those which CAN be shared by others (creatures). The Scripture says, for instance, in one famous place, that God is Love (thus divine and uncreated as God is). But if Love were of the Essence, then knowing and/or sharing in Love would mean knowing and/or sharing in the divine Essence, thus making any "lover" another Person of the Holy Trinity (!!), con-substantial with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (!!).

That which is shared ONLY by the three Divine Persons is called divine Essence: which according to the same Fathers is simple and uncompounded (and thus not the same as the Energies, which are many [so St. John Damascene]).

1 & 2. The West seems to predicate fallen human characteristics (passions) unto the uncorrupted and dispassionate Godhead. -- at least its teaching concerning redemption seems to rely heavily on this, and I have no hint that this is being understood in any other way. (The wrath, anger, pride, hurt glory of God, etc. -- when the Scriptures are speaking as such then it's the same as when they also speak of God's hand, His eyes, and so on. -- but the West seemingly does not think so, and thi is highly problematic, Patristically speaking).

I've mentioned the dispassion of God above: this is important: God is Lord: He is ruled by none! Not by anger, not by wrath, not by jealousy ("the jealous God"), etc. An immediate proof that this is so lies in the simple fact that anyone who approaches Him becomes like Him (by sharing in Him via his Energies, but not in Essence, since we're not pantheists or poly-theists). Who are the ones approaching him? The Saints. And how are they? They're ... holy! And this means forgiving, loving, caring, kind, etc. -- anything but that what the West implies that God presumably is.

I've mentioned above the Saints and their holiness: this is also very important, because I've heard it repeated many times by Protestants that God can't forgive sin precisely because of that: His Holiness. (contrary to the words of Christ in the Gospel: holiness means forgiving one's enemies, praying for those that curse us, doing good to those that do us ill; or what's presented in the Parable of the Prodigal Son; etc).

The West seems to imply that "for God so *hated* the world, that it was *necessary* to give His Only-Begotten Son", etc. -- neither hate, nor necessity, are to be predicated of the Godhead.

Our approaching of God, of which I spoke of earlier, is called by us engodment, and one of the main (or chief) characteristics of this is being dispassionate. So the theory (of Augustine) runs against the Patristic view of the Gospel, and against what we see happening in the Lives (and Icons) of the Saints. [Look at an Orthodox Icon: the face of the Saint depicted in it shows no passion -- they have achieved engodment, and are thus dispassionate, and free from all fallen desire, urgem need, etc].

Jnorm888 said...

David, you miss understand the EO view. The EO view is extremely close to the pre-nicene view.

What Photios Jones said is correct, and it's not him reading his EO view into the pre-nicene fathers and scriptures.

I've been reading the pre-nicene fathers off and on for about 12 years now, so I know first hand that what Photios Jones said is absolutely correct.






ICXC NIKA

David Waltz said...

In THIS POST by Ken Temple, I learned that the link I provided above to Warfield's “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity” is no longer working; thanks to the Internet Archive, I was able to obtain a valid link:

“Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity”


Grace and peace,

David