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Archive Reformed Irenicism Sacred Doctrine Steven Wedgeworth

Is There a Calvinist Doctrine of the Trinity?

Recent years have enjoyed a great renewal in theological conversations on the Trinity.  As new questions arise, we find theologians turning to classic authors to help answer these questions.  Reformed theologians have not failed to enter this conversation.  Recently, several theologians have claimed that the Calvinistic or Reformed doctrine of the Trinity represents a distinctive break with, and perhaps an advancement of, the Nicene tradition.  They assert that Calvin’s attribution of the term autotheos to the eternal Son, as well as his statements about the “unbegotten” essence of God, represent a correction to implicit subordinationism within the long-standing tradition.  Some have even asserted that Calvin was able to achieve a metaphysical breakthrough in establishing “the primacy of the persons” in trinitarian thought.   We can see these claims in A New Systematic Theology by Robert Reymond, Gerald Bray’s The Doctrine of God, and in a critical essay by Roger Beckwith.

In this paper, we will investigate how these claims arise in the history of Reformed theology and respond by examining the context in which Calvin made his (now) controversial statements.  We will argue that the recent thinkers who suggest that there is a distinctively Calvinistic doctrine of the trinity have misunderstood Calvin’s context, and thus wrongly assumed his theology to be creative on this point.  We will thus contend that rather than creating a new theological construction, Calvin was instead working within an old Western tradition.

The Modern Claim

The modern claim, though it takes various forms, is that Calvin provided a critique of the inadequacies of the Nicene trinitarian tradition, and supplied a modified trinitarianism which secured the total equality between the divine Father, Son, and Spirit.  Certain other claims have mentioned a distinctive “Calvinistic” doctrine of the Trinity, as well as calling for modern Reformed Christians to redefine certain key tenants of the Nicene Creed, most notably the eternal generation of the Son and procession of the Spirit.  This has been met with applause for Calvin’s bravery and Scriptural fidelity on the one hand, and harsh criticisms on the other.  A example of the latter can be seen in the reviews of the first edition of Robert Reymond’s A New Systematic Theology, which criticized it for its proposals regarding trinitarian theology.[1]  Reymond attempted to meet some of these criticisms in a second edition released in 2001, and the changes are informative.  Now gone are the reliance upon Gordon Clark’s criticisms of traditional language, the assertion that “Calvin contended against the subordinationism implicit in the Nicene language,”[2] and the concluding contrast between Nicene trinitarianism and “Reformed” trinitarianism.  What has replaced these claims, however, is a section entitled “More recent Reformed opinion” in which Reymond seeks to show that he is not alone in holding his perspective.  Indeed, he moves the burden from simply his own views to the larger trajectory of Reformed thought.  Particularly striking is his quotation from Gerald Bray which asserts, “the Protestant Reformers, in spite of their links with the Augustinian tradition, … had a vision of God which was fundamentally different from anything which had gone before, or what has appeared since.”[3]  While the quotation had appeared as a footnote in the first edition, it now appears in the body of his argument.  Reymond then goes on to list several traditionalist Reformed theologians who support his position: Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, and John Murray.[4]  Apparently Reymond is not the first Reformed thinker to see a significant discontinuity between Calvin and the Nicene tradition.

A second example of the modern perspective on Reformed trinitarianism comes by way of criticism.  Roger Beckwith has written, in a 2001 article directly titled “The Calvinist Doctrine of the Trinity,” that “Although the Lutheran and Anglican Reformers were content to re-state in traditional terms the doctrine of the Trinity, as worked out from the Scriptures by the early Fathers, and to give their emphatic endorsement to the ancient Creeds, this is less true of John Calvin.”[5]  He also states that Calvin’s theology had “some unusual features” of which was his “distinctive” teaching on the Holy Trinity.  He takes particular aim at Paul Helm, citing one of his lectures as an example of subsequent Calvinists responding to Calvin’s view.  Beckwith also cites Reymond a page later.  Though placing some distance between both men and Calvin, Beckwith does agree with their assertion that Calvin significantly modified the traditional definition of the Trinity.  Beckwith even criticizes Calvin’s “negative development” for creating “an attenuation of trinitarian doctrine and a reductionist approach to the biblical evidence on which it rests.”[6]

Regardless of the accuracy of Beckwith’s criticisms, it is clear that he too believes that there is a distinctive Calvinist doctrine of the Trinity.  When one consults Helm’s response to Beckwith in the same volume, familiar names appear as historical support for criticizing Nicaea.  We see B.B. Warfield, John Murray, Robert Reymond, and Gerald Bray.[7]  One of Gerald Bray’s own statements, part of which was employed by Reymond, is worth quoting in full:

It therefore comes as something of a surprise to discover that the Protestant Reformers, in spite of their links with the Augustinian tradition, and not withstanding 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 Reformed 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 a revolt against abuses in the medieaval church, developed instead into a new type of Christianity.[8]

Bray asserts that all of the distinctives of Reformed theology can only be understood in light of the distinctive Reformed trinitarianism.  Indeed, Bray says that the Protestant Reformers “developed into a new type of Christianity.”  Bray’s claims may actually be the boldest of all, as he is claiming not merely a reform of the “old type” of Christianity, but rather the development of a “new type.”

So Just What Did Calvin Say?

When one looks to Calvin with such grand expectations, it can only be said that he will be thoroughly frustrated.  Nowhere does one find Calvin giving criticisms of the traditional doctrine of the Trinity, much less can he be seen self-consciously promoting a new or unique position.  If anything, Calvin is reluctant at all to speak of the Trinity.[9]  He states:

If, therefore, these terms [traditional trinitarian terms] were not rashly invented, we ought to beware lest by repudiating them we be accused of overweening rashness.  Indeed, I could wish they were buried, if only among all men this faith were agreed on: that Father and Son and Spirit are one God, yet the Son is not the Father, nor the Spirit the Son, but that they are differentiated by a peculiar quality.[10]

The reader looking for the modern claim is surely under-whelmed at such a statement.  Calvin would forego all trinitarian speculation if only men would confess the basics.  He is not so naïve as to believe that this will suffice against the teachings of heretics, however, which is why he proceeds to uphold the traditional position, citing Augustine, Tertullian, Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nazianzus in the process.  Calvin does, it is true, offer some criticism towards the way Hilary and Jerome use language amidst controversy, but he does not reject their theological positions.  Indeed, Calvin cites the very Council of Nicaea and mentions that it represents “the agreement of the ancients.”[11]  To this collection of ancients, Calvin adds his own support, and only asks that readers “impose a limit upon their curiosity” when it comes to more particular trinitarian questions.  He hardly seems the trailblazer.

So if Calvin does not put forth himself as a theological revolutionary in this regard, to what concepts are the modern writers making reference?  The quotes offered by Reymond, as well as the examination of Calvin given in Hodge and Warfield, all have to do with Calvin’s assertion of the Son’s aseity and particularly the application to him of the title autotheos.  Warfield’s entire discussion on Calvin is helpful, but pages 233-252[12] are invaluable in understanding the occasion of Calvin’s use of these terms.  A condensed treatment can also be found in Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics vol. 4, (Baker Academic, 2003) 324-326.[13]

Reymond himself offers two significant quotes from Calvin which support our reading: that autotheos was a way of describing the divine essence, particularly in regard to its aseity.  The first states “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.”[14]  The second quote shows Calvin calling the line from Nicaea, Deum esse de Deo, a “hard saying.”  Calvin also says, “so that as to essence the Word is God absque principio [without beginning], while in Person the Son has His principium [beginning] from the Father.”[15]

To these quotes supplied by Reymond, we can also add this statement from Calvin’s Institutes:

Therefore we say that the deity in an absolute sense exists of itself; whence likewise we confess that the Son since he is God, exists of himself, but not in respect of his Person; indeed, since he is the Son, we say that he exists from the Father.  Thus his essence is without beginning; while the beginning of his person is God himself.[16]

We see the same distinction, the deity of the Son, as shared divine nature, is self-existent.  Earlier in the same section, Calvin says, “God without particularization is unbegotten.”  However, when speaking of personal relations within the nature, the Son does “exist from the Father.”

What is noteworthy in all of these quotes is that Calvin never poses his qualifications in opposition to either the early Fathers or the Nicene tradition.  Never does he say “They wrongly affirmed X, but I say Y.”  In fact, Reymond’s own quotes reveal that Calvin actually draws from the authority of Augustine and Athanasius to support his qualifications.  In the Institutes 1.13.19, Calvin concludes the whole discussion by saying:

The whole fifth book of Augustine On the Trinity is concerned with explaining this matter.  Indeed, it is far safer to stop with that relation which Augustine sets forth than by too subtly penetrating into the sublime mystery to wander through many evanescent speculations.

The same historical appeal can be found in Calvin’s Expositio impietatis Valen. Gentilis.  After saying that Deum esse de Deo was “a hard saying,” Calvin immediately adds, “But for removing its ambiguity no one can be a more suitable interpreter than Athanasius, who dictated it.  And certainly the design of the fathers was none other than…”  Calvin is appealing to the patristic tradition and certainly not opposing it.  Warfield even explains that Calvin only found the saying “hard” because of “its misuse by the Antitrinitarians.”[17]  To use these quotes as evidence of a Reformed trinitarianism which broke away from the Nicene tradition is nearly fraudulent and completely effaces Calvin’s own disposition.  At this point we must also be clear that Warfield made no such claim, though modern Calvinists have attempted to use him in support of it.  Indeed, Warfield goes to great lengths to defend the catholicity of Calvin’s terminology, even showing that Cardinal Bellarmine allowed for Calvin’s orthodoxy on this point.[18]

To summarize Calvin’s position on autotheos, we can say that he applied it to the Son insofar as he was speaking about the Son’s nature.  The Son is autotheos because He possesses the fullness of the divine nature (which is itself autoousia).  When speaking of the person, however, Calvin affirms that the Son is “from the Father.”  “Thus the essence is without principium; but the principium of the Person is God Himself.”[19]

A Contextual Misreading

We are again left with a question on this matter.  How could contemporary Calvinists miss Calvin’s point so widely?  The simple answer is that they have missed the context in which Calvin said what he did.  From at least as early as Charles Hodge,[20] commentators have interpreted Calvin’s qualifications as criticisms against the early church and the Nicene tradition, when in fact Calvin’s remarks and criticisms are aimed at Antitrinitarians and in support of the tradition.  Hodge is followed in this assumption by John Murray who writes:

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 homoousion 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’.[21]

We have already seen from Calvin (and even Warfield) that this is false.  Calvin appealed to Athanasius to defend the phrase in question.  With such names like Hodge and Murray, two Reformed champions indeed, Reymond, Bray, and others would seem to have a solid foundation.  Unfortunately this is not the case.  The understanding of Calvin’s intent is incorrect, and thus the entire project of extolling a “Calvinistic” version of the Trinity over and against a Nicene version falls to the ground.

Calvin is not directing his criticisms against the tradition, and in fact, his emphasis on the aseity of the Son is not something recently thought up, much less can it be said to be unique.  Quite to the contrary, Calvin is actually employing the theological language of a specific medieval tradition.  Francois Wendel pointed out this connection in 1950, as he writes of Calvin’s trinitarian qualifications:

Calvin declares it impossible that each one of the three Persons could have ‘a portion of the divine essence’, and teaches, in accordance with Peter Lombard (Sent 1, dist.), and with the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 (Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum No. 431 f.), that the divine essence is absolutely one and unbegotten in all three Persons.[22]

Richard Muller also points out that Calvin is specifically following the tradition of the Fourth Lateran Council when he writes, “Calvin’s view, like that of many of the later Reformed, follows out the line of the Western, Augustinian, trinitarian model, as defined by the Fourth Lateran Council, rather than the Greek model.”[23]

When one turns to the text of the Fourth Lateran Council, the similarity with Calvin becomes immediately apparent.  In dealing with the controversy raised by the theology of Joachim de Flora, the council officially recognized Lombard’s terminology as the faith of the western church.  It states:

We therefore condemn and reprove that small book or treatise which abbot Joachim published against master Peter Lombard concerning the unity or essence of the Trinity, in which he calls Peter Lombard a heretic and a madman because he said in his Sentences, “For there is a certain supreme reality which is the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit, and it neither begets nor is begotten nor does it proceed“. He asserts from this that Peter Lombard ascribes to God not so much a Trinity as a quaternity, that is to say three persons and a common essence as if this were a fourth person.

A little later the council also states:

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.[24]

The Council is defending Lombard against charges of setting up a “quaternity” in the Godhead when he insists that, “There is a certain supreme reality which is the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit, and it neither begets nor is begotten nor does it proceed.”  Lombard has an extensive treatment of this topic in his Sentences, and it can be found in Book 1, Distinction 5.  The entire first chapter begins by stating, “HERE IT IS ASKED WHETHER THE FATHER GENERATED A DIVINE ESSENCE, OR WHETHER AN ESSENCE GENERATED THE SON, OR AN ESSENCE GENERATED AN ESSENCE, OR WHETHER IT NEITHER GENERATED NOR WAS GENERATED.”[25] Lombard concludes that the essence considered in itself is neither generated nor was generated, thus setting the framework from which Calvin would make his statements.

That Calvin would be naturally thinking within this tradition seems clear.  Lombard was a major sourcebook for accessing the Church Fathers.[26]  Bonaventure, like most medievals, wrote a commentary on the Sentences, of which Calvin would have been aware.  The Sentences was still a textbook for much western thought.  We can also see a similarity between Lombard and Calvin when Calvin has to fend off the charge of “quaternity,” in the immediate context of his assertion of the Son’s aseity.  He writes:

But they are obviously deceived in this connection, for they dream of individuals, each having its own separate part of the essence.  Yet we teach from the Scriptures that God is one in essence, and hence that the essence both of the Son and of the Spirit is unbegotten…

They also foolishly think they may conclude from our statement that we have set up a quaternity, for they falsely and calumniously ascribe this fiction of their own brain to us, as if we pretended that the three persons came forth by derivation from one essence.  On the contrary, it is clear from our writings that we do not separate the persons from the essence, but we distinguish among them while they remain within it. If the persons had been separate from the essence, the reasoning of these men might have been probably; but in this way there would have been a trinity of gods, not of persons whom the one God contains in himself.[27]

This argument defends against a charge which is nearly identical to Joachim’s criticism of Lombard.

Another parallel is when Calvin uses the clause “in an absolute sense” to speak of the deity existing “of itself.”[28]  Lombard, and the Fourth Lateran Council following him, had qualified their own statement by saying, “a certain supreme reality.”  Thus Calvin is in complete harmony with this tradition.  To speak of deity in an absolute sense existing of itself is in no way to reject the claim that the Son is “of the Father,” neither is it at odds with “God of God” language.  It is to express the truth of the Persons’ shared nature when viewed from the perspective of substantial quality.  Personal relations and even causation were not seen to be incompatible with such a point of view.  Indeed, the medieval catholic tradition had come to a conclusion on this some 300 years prior to Calvin.  The fact that Calvin never thought to defend his qualifications at any great length, which one would certainly expect if, in the midst of the Protestant Reformation, he were attempting to significantly redefine the doctrine of the Trinity, ought to be conclusive enough.  Add to this the reality of the western tradition since the Fourth Lateran Council, and Calvin’s statements become immediately recognizable.  However distinctive one may wish to show Calvin’s terminology to be, it must be seen more basically as a part of the western tradition.

In fact, the western tradition has another important precursor to Calvin in the person of Anselm of Canterbury.  Writing just prior to Lombard, Anselm affirms something very similar to Lombard’s perspective on the divine essence in the 44th chapter of the Monologion.  He says that the generation of the Son from the Father is consistent with the doctrine of divine simplicity: “to say that one is the essence of the other is not to point away from the truth, but to point up the supreme unity and simplicity of their common nature.”[29]

The doctrine of divine simplicity states that the divine essence is without parts or distinction.  Following from this is the truth that wherever the divine essence exists, it exists as a whole.  For the essence of the Son to be the essence of the Father is not to say that it derived from the Father in a composite or temporal manner.  Instead, it is to say that the essence is one.  And it is simple.

Anselm continues to explain his thought on this matter.  He states that both the Father and the Son are “the Supreme essence.”  Anselm explains:

The Father is wholly the supreme essence, and the Son is wholly the supreme essence.  So Father and Son, each exists as a whole through himself, just as each is wise through himself.  Now the Son is essence and wisdom born from the Father’s essence and wisdom.  But this does not mean he is any less wholly essence and wisdom.  (He would be less perfectly essence and wisdom, if he did not exist, and be wise, through himself.)  The Son exists through himself and has his existence from the Father.  This is not a contradiction.[30]

Doubtless this conversation runs the risk of posing the sort of oversubtleties which mark a decadent scholasticism, but what Anselm is saying is actually important for our discussion.  The Son can exist both “from the Father” and “through himself.”  His “essence” can be said to have been “born form the Father”- eternal generation- and He can still possess the fullness of that divine essence.  He can exist through himself, and He can have his existence from the Father.  The reason that this is not a contradiction is, again, because of the affirmation of divine simplicity.

And since the Son’s essence is “the supreme essence” or, in other words, “the divine essence,” we can see in Anselm’s argument a notional anticipation of autotheos.  There is at the very least the dual perspective seen in Lombard.  The Son can both be God in Himself and God from the Father, depending on whether one is speaking of the divine essence or the personal relations.  The Son is God in Himself because the Son is the supreme essence through Himself.  This does not require a denial that the Son is also generated from the Father, nor that the Son’s essence is that of the Father.  And the Father can be said to be the font or “origin” (in a logical sense) of the Son, even while the divine essence is itself ever present in both.  This is all dependent upon the logic of simplicity, but within that logic, it is fully coherent.

 

Conclusion

We have not attempted to prove that Calvin’s position was correct on this theological point, nor have we sought to argue that it is perfectly harmonious with fourth century terminology, but rather the goal has simply been to set him aright in his immediate context.  If Calvin is working within an established tradition, as is the most reasonable interpretation, then it can hardly be said that he was significantly and intentionally breaking with Nicaea, much less can it be claimed that he was promoting a “vision of God which was fundamentally different from anything which had gone before, or what has appeared since” or had any intention whatsoever of originating “a new type of Christianity.”[31]

A few concluding remarks should be made at this point.  The first is simply that we ought to be very cautious when employing Calvin or any other 16th century thinker in the cause of modern theological disputes.  That Calvin was particularly interested in promoting something like “the primacy of the persons,” as Bray indicates, is rather unlikely.  Certainly Abbott Joachim did not perceive Lombard to be making this move!  Neither should we quickly embrace any statement about Calvin’s place in 20th century “social trinitarianism.”  He was not working within that context, and that question was not, in any direct way, on his mind.

Secondly, even if we granted that Calvin was significantly innovative in his trinitarian thought, this would still not support the claim that Calvinism or Reformed Theology promoted a unique position on this matter.  None of the major Reformed Confessions make any attempt to state a Calvinistic doctrine of the Trinity, and in fact, they are overwhelmingly modest in their assertions.  Furthermore, there were significant Reformed thinkers who explicitly defended the language of the early church as well as some who did not follow Calvin’s language.  Of this we can point to Zacharias Ursinsus, who asserted that “The Son is that self-same Being, or essence, not of himself, but of the Father.”[32]  Other notable Reformed thinkers who retained this language are Richard Hooker[33] and the much later R. L. Dabney.[34]  Dabney is particularly helpful in proving this point, as he was writing contemporaneously with Hodge.  The two men’s views on the Nicene tradition could hardly be further apart.  Thus the claim that there was a clearly distinctive Reformed position on the Trinity is difficult to sustain.

Finally, and this should to be of most priority for historical claims, Calvin was simply not producing anything new in his trinitarian theology.  He was not rejecting the Nicene or catholic tradition.  Indeed he was doing the reverse, as he defended it against its critics.  Above all, however, Calvin was working out of a pre-established medieval tradition.  His theology, on this point at least, was anything but an innovation.  Claims that Calvin achieved a theological revolution on this point can only be made by discarding the Lombardian tradition and thoroughly misunderstanding Calvin’s audience.  Thus to the question “Is there a Calvinist doctrine of the Trinity?” we must answer resoundingly in the negative.  Calvin’s is but the catholic one.


[1] See Robert Lethams’s review of Reymond in Westminster Theological Journal 62/2 (Fall 2000): 314-319, and Paul Owen, “An Examination of Robert Reymond’s Understanding of the Trinity in his Appeal to John Calvin,” Calvin Theological Journal 35 (2000): 262-281.

[2] A New Systematic Theology 1st ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 327

[3] A New Systematic Theology 2nd ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 328

[4] Letham takes particular issue with Reymond’s use of Warfield.  In his review he writes, “Reymond cites one short paragraph from Warfield’s fine article ‘Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity’ to argue that Calvin rejected Nicene Trinitarianism (334-35).  This article is ninety-five pages long and Warfield repeatedly affirms Calvin’s approval of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan doctrine of the trinity.  For instance, ‘It will have already become apparent… that in his doctrine of the Trinity Calvin departed in nothing from the doctrine which had been handed down from the orthodox Fathers.’  He also underlines Calvin’s ‘pervasive’ approval of eternal generation and eternal procession (244-245)!  From this long article Reymond extracts one small paragraph and uses it to counter all Warfield has carefully stated over scores of pages.  This is shoddy” (319).

[5] “The Calvinist Doctrine of the Trinity,” Churchman. Vol. 115 No 4 (2001): 308

[6] ibid 315

[7] Bray is cited on pg. 351 and the other names appear on pg. 352.

[8] The Doctrine of God (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1993), 197-198

[9] The background to this reluctance is discussed in detail by Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity.” reprinted in Calvin and Augustine (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed publishing co., 1956), 189-284.  Barth also takes it up in his Church Dogmatics vol. 1.1 chapter 2, 11.2.

[10] Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.13.5

[11] ibid 1.13.29

[12] Warfield makes several very important points.  He notes that autotheos did not become a part of Calvin’s theological vocabulary until late into his life and that it actually originated in the works of one of his opponents (233-234).  Further, Warfield points out that Calvin cited Augustine in order to defend against charges that he was innovating on this point (235-236).  This is not exactly what we would expect Calvin to do if he were making a break from the patristic tradition.  More helpfully, Warfield highlights Calvin’s own use of the person/nature distinction for this discussion (238, 240-243).  Warfield gives a few telling quotes from Calvin: “In this sense it is true to say that Christ is the One and Eternal God, existing of Himself (a se ipso existentem).  Nor can it be objected to this statement– what certainly is also taught by the ecclesiastical writers– that the Word of Son of God is of the Father (a Patre), even with respect to His eternal essence; since there is a notation of Persons, when there is commemorated a distinction of the Son from the Father.” (240); “So Cyril, who is often wont to call the Father the principium of the Son, holds it in the highest degree absurd for the Son not to be believed to have life and immortality of Himself (a se ipso).  He also teaches that if it is proper to the ineffable nature to be self-existent (a se ipsa), that is rightly ascribed to the Son.  And moreover in the tenth book of his Thesaurus, he argues that the Father has nothing of Himself (a se ipso) which the Son does not have of Himself (a se ipso)” (240).  Echoing arguments put forth by Anselm and Peter Lombard (as will be shown below), Warfield also quotes Calvin’s dual affirmation: “I assert both truths– both that Christ is of the Father as He is the second Person, and that He is of Himself (a se ipso) if we have respect to the Divine essence simpliciter” (240).  Again, Warfield shows Calvin’s use of the person/nature distinction and how it impacts the use of autoousia and autotheos: “I confess that if respect be had to the Person we ought not so to speak, but I say we are not speaking of the Person but of the essence… They contend that Christ, because He is of (ex) the substance of the Father, is not of Himself (a se ipso), since He has His principium from another.  This I allow to them of the Person.  What more do they ask?  I acknowledge, then, that the Son of God is of the Father, and when we are speaking of the Person I acknowledge that He is not of Himself.  But when, apart from consideration of the Person, we are speaking of His divinity, or which is the same thing simpliciter of the essence, I say that it is truly predicated of it that it is a se ipso” (241).  Most succinctly, Calvin is quoted as saying, “Thus the essence is without principium; but the principium of the Person is God Himself” (243).

[13] Muller also points out Calvin’s citation of Cyril and Augustine (325), the connection of autotheos with divine aseity (325), and even the precedent for this way of speaking found in the 4th Lateran Council (326).

[14] Institutes 1.13.19

[15] quoted in Reymond, pg. 328.  For the context see Warfield, pg. 249 and Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics vol. 4 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 325.  The original can be found in Opera Calvini 9, col. 368.

[16] Institutes 1.13.25

[17] Warfield, 249

[18] ibid 253

[19] quoted in Warfield, 243

[20] see Hodge’s criticism of Nicaea in his Systematic Theology vol.1 part 1. chapt. 6.6

[21] “Systematic Theology” Collected Writings vol. 4 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth trust, 1982), 8

[22] Calvin trans. Philip Mairet (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1963), 167 (emphasis mine)

[23] Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics vol. 4, 326

[24] Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum (Barcelona: Herder, 1948), 200-202.  A recent English translation of the Council’s statements can be found in Norman Tanner, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils vol. 1 (Georgetown University Press, 1990), 230.

[25] Sentences Bk. 1 Dist. 5. Chapter 1, trans. Giulio Silano (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2007), 30

[26] Nicholas Thompson, Eucharistic Sacrifice and Patristic Tradition in the Theology of Martin Bucer. (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 16, 25

[27] Institutes 1.13.25  We would also find ourselves remiss not to point out that amidst this discussion, Calvin does in fact say of the Father, “he is rightly deemed the beginning and fountainhead of the whole of divinity.”  Calvin’s use of autotheos and “ingeneracy” is only applied to the essence considered in itself.

[28] ibid

[29] quoted from Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works ed. Brian Davies and G.R. Evans (Oxford University Press, 1998) 57

[30] Ibid

[31] Bray, 197-198

[32] Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, reprinted from 1852 ed.), 130

[33] see Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book 5 chapt. 54.2

[34] see Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 204.  Dabney concludes his discussion with, “If you ask me whether I adopt the Patristic view, thus cleared, as my own, I reply, that there seems to me nothing in it inconsistent with revealed truth; yet it seems to me rather a rational explanation of revealed facts, than a revealed fact itself.”

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.