John Calvin on the Trinity

April 2, 2008

John Calvin speaking at the Council of Geneva, 1549

Review of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, chapter 13, on the doctrine of the Trinity.

Here we find a classic delineation of the Trinity, spawned by attacks on the doctrine during Calvin’s time that parallel those found in the early church. Thus we have an occasional piece of literature, filled with the customary rhetoric, but also a piece of constructive dogmatics as Calvin develops a scripturally-founded apologetic for this received doctrine in the West. Calvin repeats what he takes to be the simple definition of the doctrine, namely that the essence of God is undivided but equally belonging to Father, Son, and Spirit who themselves are differentiated by a “certain characteristic” which nonetheless causes no division or partitioning of God’s essence. Calvin is quite certain that if we simply keep this formula in mind we shall be saved from all heretical deviations, but, of course, a host of problems must be attended to, including some important qualifications on Calvin’s part. The main treatment of this formula of the Trinity is found in sections 16-20 where some interesting questions arise, but we will first briefly look at the preceding sections.

The first problem that Calvin addresses, in sections 1-6, is the use of non-biblical expressions when defining God. Given Calvin and the other Reformers’ commitment to grounding all doctrine in scripture, the question arises as to the legitimacy of “Trinity,” “person,” “essence,” “homoousian,” and so forth, since these are not found in scripture. The problem is especially acute given the conventional high regard for the Bible’s inspiration by God and full sufficiency, for the Reformers, in establishing church doctrine. In general, Calvin appropriates the same justifications used by early church fathers, especially the exegetical-suitability of the expressions. As long as the terms cohere with doctrines to which the Bible speaks, there use is appropriate. Furthermore, for Calvin, there use is well-nigh unavoidable, given the relativity of language, which Calvin readily acknowledges, as the truths of scripture adapt to different languages. As well, this adaptation will inevitably be fraught with misunderstanding and error, and it is to this that the unbiblical expressions are especially warranted. Heretics will use the same passages and equivocate on biblical expressions (even the new non-biblical expressions) to which recourse to a language’s resources will prove most helpful in unmasking the errors of the heretics.

Calvin then moves on to his proofs or evidences for the deity of the Son and the Spirit, sections 7-13 and 14-15, respectively. Regardless of the validity of the numerous texts used to establish the divinity of the Son and Spirit, it is important to note the extent to which Calvin uses scripture on rather axiomatic grounds in the sense of not searching for proofs exterior to the revealed Word of God for grounding or even supplementing his doctrine. It is enough that scripture says such-and-such is so for us to take the full divinity of the triune persons seriously. By way of contrast, there’s no resort to a sort of a priori “proof” for God’s Trinitarian life on the ground of his being as love and thus needing an other within himself for manifestation of that love. Nor is there the contemporary social Trinitarianism which postulates the seriousness of the doctrine, in large part, on its ability to model ideal earthly relations. For Calvin, the Trinity is primarily a way to talk about God properly, lest we come to fashion an idol of our own making [a point noted by Dr. Don Wood in our class].

Once Calvin has completed his exegetical segment, he moves to the more difficult, dogmatically-speaking, portion of the discourse, “Distinction and unity of the three Persons,” sections 16-20. The tension that Calvin is attempting to balance is between the singularity and indivisibility of the essence of God and the biblical (indeed, soteriologically-necessitated) presentation of the full divinity of the three persons, Father, Son, and Spirit. By “full divinity,” Calvin means no less than that each person considered in himself is fully God and eternal, i.e., neither a before nor an after. However, each person is not a portion of God as if God’s essence could be divided three ways; rather, the essence of God is constituted by these three persons – God is Father, Son, and Spirit. In turn, if God’s essence was divided then we could not say that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God; rather, each person would only be a portion of God. This, of course, would violate the bulk of Calvin’s exegetical foray that was committed to proving the full divinity of Jesus Christ and this necessarily so for our salvation (e.g., page 137).

However, if each person of the Trinity is fully God, then what of their relations as causal activity? Calvin speaks of the Father as the unbegotten one who begets the Son and the Spirit as proceeding from the Father and the Son. The question then arises whether this is not a violation of Calvin’s strong affirmation of the Son and Spirit’s full divinity. How can Calvin say, for instance, “Therefore, when we speak simply of the Son without regard to the Father, we well and properly declare him to be of himself; and for this reason we call him the sole beginning. But when we mark the relation that he has with the Father, we rightly make the Father the beginning of the Son” (144)? The Son considered in himself as God is said to be unoriginate (indeed, eternal and self-begotten as God has no origin outside himself), but considered in relation to the Father he is begotten. Are we to say then that the Son depends on the Father for his existence? Does the Father cause the Son to be (and so with the Spirit)? Paul Helm, in his book, John Calvin’s Ideas (Oxford 2006), deals with this issue and finds an answer in remembering that the begetting of the Son is an eternal begetting such that the Son is always begotten of the Father. What this eternal begetting means most importantly is that this ordered relation between the Father and Son is what God is and it could not be otherwise. As Helm states:
…the Father’s act of begetting the Son is necessary, not voluntary. It is an essential feature of the Father’s person. And likewise the begottenness of the Son is essential to his person as Son. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit not only are essentially God, the relations to each other that they in fact have are equally essential. But if the Son of God essentially and necessarily has the person he has, then the begetting of the person of the Son by the Father cannot have any voluntariness about it. In a real sense, it was not up to the Father whether one of the divine persons should be the person of Son, since being the person of the Son is essential to the person who is the Son. (56)

So, God is not free, in our usual sense of the word, to be other than this ordered relation among the three persons, and it is the false notion of a free creative act on the part of the Father that leads to the illegitimate idea of the Father “creating” the Son. Regardless, of course, there is still the difficulty of conceiving an eternal begetting without denoting causal, successive steps. Calvin, for his part, seems content to leave the discussion at the propriety of particular predicative language for the person of the Son, on the one hand, and the deity of the Son, on the other hand. Whether Calvin indeed does this is one question, and, if so, whether this is enough or how else we can go about it is a question for dogmatics.

Kevin Davis

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5 Responses to “John Calvin on the Trinity”

  1. Nice post! I’d like to get around to reading Calvin some day. In the meantime, your comments on eternal begetting, etc., reminded me of a passage I ran into in Barth’s Dogmatics in Outline a couple weeks ago, in section 6, “God the Father:” “God is God in such a way that he is the Father, the Father of His Son, that he establishes Himself and through his own agency is God a second time.” The phrase “is God a second time” especially struck me, since it seems, to me at least, to really express the way that the persons of the Trinity are separate but still entirely united as the same God.

  2. WTM said

    Well done, Kevin. With reference to paragraph 2, it is worth noting that Calvin got in some trouble early on in his career for his reticence to use non-biblical language for the Trinity.

  3. Charles,

    Thanks for pointing out the Barth quote. This is Barth at his less confusing moments — try his account of the Trinity in Church Dogmatics, where there is perhaps a sort of modalism at work — but, in truth, I can’t make head or tail of Barth on the Trinity.


    Thanks for the historical note.

  4. Nice overview! But certainly Calvin got himself into hot water over the Trinity, note the Caroli issue and controversy. You might enjoy Philip Walker Butin’s book: Revelation, Redemption & Response, Calvin’s Trinitarian Understanding of the Divine-Human Relationship.

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