Monday, November 9, 2015

John Calvin on the Trinity: "an epoch in the history of the doctrine of the Trinity" ??? - part three


In part one and part two of this series we examined two polar opposites as to whether or not Calvin's doctrine of the Trinity constituted, "an epoch in the history of the doctrine of the Trinity." In this post, we will examine the claim that Calvin's Trinitarianism is essentially the same as that of the 4th Lateran Council.

The Reformed apologist, Steven Wedgeworth, in his "Is There a Calvinist Doctrine of the Trinity?" (link), wrote:

When one turns to the text of the Fourth Lateran Council, the similarity with Calvin becomes immediately apparent.

Wedgeworth goes on to provide quotations from the 4th Lateran Council, and then focuses on doctrinal points Catholics and Calvinists hold in common. But, and this importantly, he virtually ignores a portion from the 4th Lateran Council (even though he quotes it) that a number of Reformed folk clearly deny—maintaining that Calvin denied it too—the teaching that, the Father, in begetting the Son from eternity, gave him his substance. From the Constitutions of the 4th Lateran Council we read:

We, however, with the approval of this sacred and universal council, believe and confess with Peter Lombard that there exists a certain supreme reality, incomprehensible and ineffable, which truly is the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit, the three persons together and each one of them separately. Therefore in God there is only a Trinity, not a quaternity, since each of the three persons is that reality — that is to say substance, essence or divine nature-which alone is the principle of all things, besides which no other principle can be found. This reality neither begets nor is begotten nor proceeds; the Father begets, the Son is begotten and the Holy Spirit proceeds. Thus there is a distinction of persons but a unity of nature. Although therefore the Father is one person, the Son another person and the holy Spirit another person, they are not different realities, but rather that which is the Father is the Son and the holy Spirit, altogether the same; thus according to the orthodox and catholic faith they are believed to be consubstantial. For the Father, in begetting the Son from eternity, gave him his substance, as he himself testifies : What the Father gave me is greater than all. It cannot be said that the Father gave him part of his substance and kept part for himself since the Father's substance is indivisible, inasmuch as it is altogether simple. Nor can it be said that the Father transferred his substance to the Son, in the act of begetting, as if he gave it to the Son in such a way that he did not retain it for himself; for otherwise he would have ceased to be substance. It is therefore clear that in being begotten the Son received the Father's substance without it being diminished in any way, and thus the Father and the Son have the same substance. Thus the Father and the Son and also the Holy Spirit proceeding from both are the same reality. (4th Lateran Council - LINK - bold emphasis mine.)

[NOTE: This doctrine that the Son receives His divine essence from the Father is known as communicatio essentiae—i.e. communication of essence.]

In order for one to make that claim that Calvin's doctrine of the Trinity is essentially the same as the Trinitarianism defined at the 4th Lateran Council, one must demonstrate that Calvin clearly taught that, "the Father, in begetting the Son from eternity, gave him his substance". This means that the Son receives not only His personhood from the Father, but also His Godhood/divine essence. This particular portion from the 4th Lateran Council is a reaffirmation of the same teaching found in numerous Church Fathers, and importantly, in the Nicene Creed. The beginning of original the NC of 325 reads as follows:

We believe in one God the Father all powerful, maker of all things both seen and unseen. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten begotten from the Father, that is from the substance [Gr. ousias, Lat. substantia] of the Father... (LINK)

Though some Reformed folk (e.g. Benjamin W. Swinburnson, Steven Wedgeworth) believe that Calvin affirmed the 4th Lateran Council teaching that, "the Father, in begetting the Son from eternity, gave him his substance" (i.e. communicatio essentiae), Warfield is convinced that he did not. Note the following:

The principle of his doctrine of the Trinity was not the conception he formed of the relation of the Son to the Father and of the Spirit to the Father and Son, expressed respectively by the two terms "generation" and "procession": but the force of his conviction of the absolute equality of the Persons. The point of view which adjusted everything to the conception of " generation " and " procession " as worked out by the Nicene Fathers was entirely alien to him. The conception itself he found difficult, if not unthinkable; and although he admitted the facts of " generation " and " procession," he treated them as bare facts, and refused to make them constitutive of the doctrine of the Trinity. He rather adjusted everything to the absolute divinity of each Person, their community in the one only true Deity; and to this we cannot doubt that he was ready not only to subordinate, but even to sacrifice, if need be, the entire body of Nicene speculations. Moreover, it would seem at least very doubtful if Calvin, while he retained the conception of "generation" and "procession," strongly asserting that the Father is the principium divinitatis, that the Son was "begotten" by Him before all ages and that the Spirit "proceeded" from the Father and Son before time began, thought of this begetting and procession as involving any communication of essence. (B. B. Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity”, in Calvin and Calvinism, volume V of The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield – Baker Book House, 1981 reprint, pages 257, 258 -bold emphasis mine.)

Now, it is quite interesting that though most Catholic apologists of Calvin's day were as convinced as Warfield that Calvin did not teach "any communication of essence" from the Father to the Son, there was one who believed that he did, and that man was none other than the esteemed Robert Bellermine. Warfield takes Bellermine to task in the following selection:

The evidence on which Bellarmine relies for his view that Calvin taught a communication of essence from Father to Son is certainly somewhat slender. If we put to one side Bellarmine's inability to conceive that Calvin could really believe in a true generation of the Son by the Father without holding that the Son receives His essence from the Father, and his natural presumption that Calvin's associates and pupils accurately reproduced the teaching of their master - for there is no doubt that Beza and Simler, for example, understood by generation a communication of essence - the evidence which Bellarmine relies on reduces to a single passage in the "Institutes" (I. xiii. 23). Calvin there, arguing with Gentilis, opposes to the notion that the Father and Son differ in essence, the declaration that the Father "shares" the essence together with the Son, so that it is common, tota et in solidum, to the Father and the Son. It may be possible to take the verb "communicate" here in the sense of "impart" rather than in that of "have in common," but it certainly is not necessary and it seems scarcely natural; and there is little elsewhere in Calvin's discussion to require it of us. Petavius points out that the sentence is repeated in the tract against Gentilis - but that carries us but a little way. It is quite true that there is nothing absolutely clear to be found to the opposite effect either. But there are several passages which may be thought to suggest a denial that the Son derives His essence from the Father. Precisely what is meant, for example, when we are told that the Son "contains in Himself the simple and indivisible essence of God in integral perfection, not portione aut deflexu," is no doubt not clear: but by deflexu it seems possible that Calvin meant to deny that the Son possessed the divine essence by impartation from another (I. xiii. 2). It is perhaps equally questionable what weight should be placed on the form of the statement (§ 20) that the order among the Persons by which the principium and origo is in the Father, is produced (fero) by the "proprieties"; or on the suggestion that the more exact way of speaking of the Son is to call Him "the Son of the Person" (§ 23) - the Father being meant - the term God in the phrase "Son of God" requiring to be taken of the Person of the Father. When it is argued that "whoever asserts that the Son is essentiated by the Father denies that He is selfexistent" (§ 23), and "makes His divinity a something abstracted from the essence of God, or a derivation of a part from the whole," the reference to Gentilis' peculiar views of the essentiation of the Son by the Father, i.e., His creation by the Father, seems to preclude a confident use of the phrase in the present connection. Nor does the exposition of the unbegottenness of the essence of the Son and Spirit as well as of the Father, so that it is only as respects His Person that the Son is of the Father (§ 25) lend itself any more certainly to our use. A survey of the material in the "Institutes" leads to the impression thus that there is singularly little to bring us to a confident decision whether Calvin conceived the essence of God to be communicated from the Father to the Son in "generation" and from the Father and Son to the Spirit in "procession." And outside the "Institutes" the same ambiguity seems to follow us. If we read that Christ has "the fulness of the Godhead" of Himself (Opp. xi. 560), we read equally that the Fathers taught that the Son is "of the Father even with respect to His eternal essence" (vii. 322), and is of the substance of the Father (vii. 324). In this state of the case opinions may lawfully differ. But on the whole we are inclined to think that Calvin, although perhaps not always speaking perfectly consistently, seeks to avoid speaking of generation and procession as importing the communication of the Divine essence; so that Petavius appears to be right in contending that Calvin meant what he says when he represents the Son as "having from Himself both divinity and essence" (I. xiii. 19). (B. B. Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity”, in Calvin and Calvinism, volume V of The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield – Baker Book House, 1981 reprint, pages 258-260 - bold emphasis mine.)

I believe that Warfield's understanding of Calvin's doctrine of the Trinity is the correct one. Not only does his view make sense of the negative historical reactions to Calvin's views, but it also lends more consistency to Calvin's overall reflections on the Trinity. Though Calvin certainly maintained a number of common points with other Trinitarians within the Augustinian trajectory of Trinitarian thought, I believe that he introduced a theological novum in denying that the Son receives His Godhood/divine essence from the Father. This denial when coupled with his strict teaching that the Son is autotheos, gives considerable weight to Warfield's claim that, Calvin's doctrine of the Trinity, "marks an epoch in the history of the doctrine of the Trinity".

However, with that said, I depart from Warfield on the nature of this so-called "epoch"; Warfield believes that it constituted a positive theological development, I do not, but rather, maintain that it is a negative development, and as such, it should be rejected.


Grace and peace,

David