Tuesday, October 27, 2015

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

Over the last few days, I have been reading the selections from Brannion Ellis' book, Calvin, Classical Trinitarianism, and the Aseity of the Son, that have been provided online via Google preview (LINK). The book is an interesting one, in that it is attempting to defend a middle position between two contrasting views of Calvin's Trinitarian thought—i.e. between the view that Calvin's doctrine of the Trinity, "marks an epoch in the history of the doctrine of the Trinity" [1]; and the stark, contrasting view that Calvin's Trinitarian thought, "carefully avoided anything that could have been considered an innovation" [2].  (Though Ellis is not the first person to present a mediating position between the two polarized views, his is certainly the most exhaustive.)

Ellis' book brought back to mind a definitive work penned by B. B. Warfield. It was way back in 1981, that I purchased the Baker Book House reprint edition of "The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield" (10 volumes). Shortly thereafter, I read volume 5, which contained the substantive essay, "Calvin's Doctrine of the Trinity" (pages 189-284). [This essay was originally published in The Princeton Theological Review, 1909, and is available online HERE.] It was in this contribution by Warfield that I first came across the term αὐτόθεος (autotheos). Given the high regard that the Reformed community had for Warfield, I accepted the bulk of his assessments without any critical reflection, assessments which included the following:

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 αὐτόθεος; 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 αὐτόθεος served the same purpose in this regard that the term ὁμοούσιος had served against the Arians and the term ὑπόστασις against the Sabellians. No minimizing conception of the deity of Christ could live in the face of the assertion of aseity or αὐτόθεότης 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 αὐτόθεότης and of θεός ἐκ θεοῦ 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 Calvinism, volume V of The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield – Baker Book House, 1981 reprint, pages 251, 252.)


In his assertion of the αὐτόθεότης 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 αὐτόθεότης. 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 αὐτόθεότης of the Son. By this assertion the ὁμοουσιότης 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- bold emphasis mine.)

I subsequently began to notice that a number of other Reformed theologians embraced similar views; note the following:

Students of historical theology are acquainted with the furore which Calvin's insistence upon the self-existence of the Son as to his deity aroused at the time of the Reformation. Calvin was too much of a student of Scripture to be content to follow the lines of what had been regarded as Nicene orthodoxy on this particular issue. He was too jealous for the implications of the homousion clause of the Nicene creed to be willing to accede to the interpretation which the Nicene fathers, including Athanasius, placed upon another expression in the same creed, namely, 'very God of very God' (θεόν ἀληθινὸν ὲκ θεοῦ ἀληθινο). No doubt this expression is repeated by orthodox people without any thought of suggesting what the evidence derived from the writings of the Nicene Fathers would indicate the intent to have been. This evidence shows that the meaning intended is that the Son derived his deity from the Father and that the Son was not therefore αὐτόθεος. It was precisely this position that Calvin controverted with vigour. He maintained that as respects personal distinction the Son was of the Father but as respects deity he was self-existent (ex se ipso). Hence the indictments leveled against him. (John Murray, "Systematic Theology", Studies in Theology, volume 4 in the Collected Writings of John Murray, 1982, p. 8.)

Gerald Bray:

It therefore comes as something of a surprise to discover that the Protestant Reformers, in spite of their links with the Augustinian tradition, and notwithstanding Karl Barth's claim that he was walking in their footsteps, had a vision of God which was fundamentally different from anything which had gone before, or which has appeared since. The great issues of Reformation theology – justification by faith, election, assurance of salvation – can be properly understood only against the background of a trinitarian theology which gave these matters their peculiar importance and ensured that Protestantism, instead of becoming just another schism produced by revolt against abuses in the mediaeval church, developed instead into a new type of Christianity.

The radically different character of Protestantism, and especially Calvinism, has often be recognized by secular historians, but its theological origins have seldom been discerned. Partly this is because theology is a difficult and unpopular subject, which many scholars in other disciplines refuse to take seriously, preferring to treat theological statements as mythical conceptualizations of what are really socio-economic problems.

Partly too, it is the result of theologians' failure, or sheer inability, to perceive the uniqueness of what the Reformers taught about God. It is often assumed that the Reformers accepted their ancient inheritance without quarrel, and had nothing original to contribute to it. Many people assume that that Calvin's defense of the Trinity, for example, was intended mainly as a refutation of heretics like Servetus, and offers little that could be termed new.

Recent ecumenical discussions have tended to confirm this impression. Today both Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians are inclined to stress the superficial causes of the Reformation, like the abuse of clerical power, and play down the underlying theological differences...The great pillars of Reformation doctrine are not Scholastic shibboleths perpetuating an artificial divide in Western Christendom, but claims about the being of God which are of such vital importance that those who rejected them felt that they were no longer in spiritual fellowship with people who insisted on making them the heart of their religion.

Far from being more or less the same as its Catholic counterpart, Reformation theology is distinguished from it by a number of characteristics, of which the following are the most significant. First, the Reformers believed that the essence of God is of secondary importance in Christian theology. (Gerald Bray, The Doctrine of God, 1993, pp. 197, 198 - bold emphasis mine.)

In the next two paragraphs, Bray provides his support for the above 'characteristic', and then moves on to the second:

The second point which distinguishes the theology of the Reformers is their belief that the persons of the Trinity are equal to one another in every respect. (Ibid. p. 200)

His extrapolation of the 'point' over the next two pages leads into number three:

...the third principle of Reformation theology, which is that knowledge of one of the persons involves knowledge of the other two at the same time. (Ibid. p. 202)

In what follows, Bray outlines his understanding of how the Reformers avoided what he terms the "semi-Sabellian" understanding of the Trinity that dominated the Western tradition, prior to the Reformation period, quoting the following from Calvin's Institutes:

. . . to the Father is attributed the beginning of action, the fountain and source of all things, to the Son, wisdom, counsel, and arrangement in action, while the energy and efficacy of actions is assigned to the Spirit (I,13,18).

He immediately then writes:

Viewed in relation to action, the three persons of the Trinity can be distinguished as follows:

Father : beginning
Son : arrangement
Spirit : efficacy

This scheme preserves the priority of the Father, which from ancient times has been expressed by the term 'source of the Godhead' (Greek: pēgē tēs Theotētos; Latin: fons Deitatis) without the ontological implications which such a statement is bound to have in the context of an Origenist theology. (Ibid. p. 203)

After introducing the fact Calvin stated, "that each person of the Trinity is autotheos", he goes on to emphasize that Calvin's, "words are carefully chosen so as to avoid any hint of causality", and that the Son is not, "ontologically dependent on the Father as the only true autotheos." (Ibid. p. 204)

This is not the place to critique Bray's sweeping assessments (of which I think there are a number of significant problems); the intent of the quotations are to establish that he clearly believes the Reformers (especially Calvin) understanding of the Trinity introduces a break within the Western tradition via some novel aspects.

Richard A. Muller:

The Reformed doctrine of the Trinity (and, of course, also the doctrine of the Person of Christ) is characterized by a declaration of the aseity of Christ's divinity: considered as God, the Second Person of the Trinity is divine a se ipso — he is autotheos. This had been a point of controversy with both the antitrinitarians and with Rome since the time of Calvin, and in the course of the development of Reformed dogmatics in the late sixteenth and seventeenth century, it became not only the distinctive feature of Reformed trinitarianism but also a crucial point, defended against any and all opponents. (Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics - The Triunity of God, 4.324.)

Interestingly enough, a bit later, Muller adds:

The radical statement of the son's aseity found in Calvin's trinitarian polemic is not echoed by all of the early orthodox Reformed theologians: as Amyraut noted, there as no debate among the orthodox over the distinct personal identify of the Son, but there was discussion over whether he stood in utterly equal majesty and dignity with the Father. (Ibid. p. 326)

He then provides the following quote from Ursinus:

God the Father is that Being who is of himself, and not from another, The Son is that self-same Being, or essence, not of himself, but of the Father. (Ibid. p. 236)

Morton H. Smith:

It is of interest to observe the treatment of these concepts by the Nicene theologians (325 A. D.). They sought to define to define the eternal generation of the Son as follows: first, it was not by creation that Christ is the Son of God. Second, it is temporal, but eternal. Third, it is not after the manner of human generation. Fourth, it is not by the division of essence. After giving these four negations, the following positive speculations are suggested: first, the Father is the beginning, the fountain, the cause, the principle of the being of the Son. Second, the Son thus derives his essence from the Father by eternal and indefinable generation of the divine essence from the Father to the Son. Calvin was the first one to challenge these last two speculations. He taught that the Son was a se ipso with regard to his deity. He did not derive his essence from the Father. (Systematic Theology, volume one, 1994, p. 152 - bold emphasis mine.)

Warfield, Murray, Bray, Muller and Smith are representatives of the view that Calvin's doctrine of the Trinity, "marks an epoch in the history of the doctrine of the Trinity". (It is important to note that those who are supporters of this view do not believe Calvin's overall Trinitarianism lies outside the Augustinian tradition—or that it is devoid of any historical precedent—but rather, they focus on features of his thought they feel are innovative.)

In my next post, I will provide selections from the opposing view; that Calvin, concerning the Trinity, "carefully avoided anything that could have been considered an innovation".

Grace and peace,



1. 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, page 283.

2. Francois Wendel, Calvin - Origins and Development of His Religious Thought, English trans., Philip Mairet, 1963, Baker Books edition, 1997, p. 168.


Drake Shelton said...


Great article. I pointed this out to my session when I was leaving the Free Church of Scotland. It was a mix of denial and the deer in headlights.

David Waltz said...

Hi Drake,

It is good to hear that you appreciated the post. I am not surprised by the response you got from the Free Church of Scotland. It has been my experience that few Calvinists are aware of the controversies that Calvin's reflections on the doctrine of the Trinity created.

BTW, I should have part 2 up by tomorrow, the Lord willing...

Grace and peace,