Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Calvinists and the Trinity

In Geneva there was a man by the name of Caroli who became part of the Calvinist Reformation but eventually went back to Rome and started accusing Calvin of being an Arian. Caroli demanded that Calvin sign in agreement to the Apostle's, Nicene, and Athanasian Creed. Calvin refused on the grounds that he was bound to the Scriptures alone. Calvin spoke highly of the Apostles' Creed, objected to the condemnatory language in the Athanasian Creed, and mocked the form and language of the Nicene Creed. Calvin wrote:

And as for the Nicene Creed - is it so very certain it was composed by that Council? One would surely suppose those holy Fathers would study conciseness in so serious a matter as a creed. But see the battology here: "God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God." Why this repetition - which adds neither to the emphasis nor to the expressiveness of the document? Don't you see that this is a song, more suitable for singing than to serve as a formula of confession?
Calvin may think the Nicene Creed is just a bunch of stammering speech but I strongly disagree. The Nicene Creed faithfully confesses what the Scriptures have to say about the Trinity. The Trinity is a profound mystery. We cannot fully comprehend it and we are completely dependent upon God's revelation to know anything about the Trinity. The fathers at Nicea and were very careful in their language not to go beyond God's revelation and thereby deny the threeness or the oneness of God as it has been revealed to us. To be fair to Calvin, he also teaches the threeness and oneness of God in his writings. But in his attempt to defend himself against the charge of Arianism, he also taught the aseity of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Calvin taught that the Son and the Holy Spirit have their being from themselves. Warfield believed that this teaching of the aseity of the Son made Calvin one of the greatest Trinitarian theologians of the Western Church by eliminating all subordinationism and many Calvinists and non-Calvinists in the Western Church have adopted Calvin's language.

But this is a substantial departure from Nicene Trinitarian language. In the Nicene Creed the Father is unbegotten and possesses asiety, the Son is begotten, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (and the Son in the Western form of the Creed. I will refrain at this time from commenting on the filioque). The majority of Calvinists have adopted Calvin's language but as at least one Calvinist theologian by the name of David Engelsma has pointed out:

The Father begets the Son.This begetting is an eternal activity of bringing forth another who is different from the Father as the second person but also like the Father as His "express image."Contrary to Calvin, the begetting of the Son is the Father's bringing forth of the Son, not only as regards the Son's person but also as regards the Son's being. In the interests of defending the oneness of God and of guarding against any subordination of the Son, Calvin restricted the Father's begetting of the Son to the generation of the Son's person. The Son, Calvin contended, has His being from Himself. Calvin's doctrine of the generation of the Son, however, does not do justice to the begetting of the Son that is implied by the names Father and Son and that is expressed by John in the word monogenees. Calvin's doctrine of aseity jeopardizes the essential oneness of the Father and the Son and weakens both the relation and the personal difference between the two. The idea of begetting, both biblically and in human experience, is that of bringing forth a being from one's own being....There is in John's description of the Son as the "only begotten" no limitation of that which the Father has begotten to the person of the Son. The Son is begotten of the Father in His entirety, person and being. It is exactly the generation of the being of the Son out of the being of the Father that is the reason why the being of Jesus the Son of God is the being itself of God. The generation of the being of Jesus Christ was of critical importance at Nicea. Jesus Christ was confessed to be of "one substance (essence) with the Father" inasmuch as He is "very God of very God," that is, "out of very God." But the Son is out of God by virtue of being "begotten of the Father before all worlds." Nicea understood the begetting of the Son to be a begetting of essence, or substance.
There is no subordinationism within the Nicene formula when properly understood and there is a real confession of Threeness in Nicea that is diminished in Calvin. As Roger Beckwith points out there is also a difference in Calvin in the way that he explains this Threeness. Calvin does not explain the Threeness in relational terms as the church fathers did.

Instead, he directs attention to their distinctive roles in the activities of God, the Father as originator, the Son as wise director and the Spirit as powerful executor, which could be regarded as just other sorts of relationships, not characteristics of the Persons themselves.
Calvin also denies many of the Trintiarian interpretations of Old Testament texts and the traditional interpretations used to support the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. Although Calvin himself teaches the eternal generation of the Son, it's easy to see how later Calvinists like Robert Reymond and Lorraine Boettner would end up denying it. With the doctrine of the aseity of the Son it's difficult to maintain the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. It's also easy to see how the idea of God as one person could develop in the theology Cornelius Van Til. Calvin himself doesn't make it into the "heretic" catagory when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity but he certainly lays the groundwork for others to become outright heretics. Calvin does not give us further insight into the doctrine of the Trinity but rather introduces obstacles to a true understanding of the Trinity. In some ways I think this is comparable to Augustine's doctrine of the sacraments. Augustine himself did not separate the sign from the thing signified but the introduction of this Platonic language laid the groundwork for others such as Calvin to do so.

While researching this topic I had discussions with several Calvinists. Some of them disagreed with Calvin and thought the Trinitarian language of Nicea was more accurate. Others adopted Warfield's approach of trying to harmonize Calvin and Nicea. Others denied the eternal generation of the Son. Some of these last group even claimed that they could still confess Nicea since the trajectory of Calvinist theology has developed in a different direction from other theologies. But this empties the language of the Nicene Creed of all meaning if it can be constantly reinterpreted. It's already problematic that Calvinists who deny baptismal regeneration also don't interpret "one baptism for the remission of sins" according to its original intent. According to the Scriptures we are baptized into the name of the Trinity, our sins are washed away, and we are regenerated. According to the Calvinist baptism is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace. There is a history in Calvinism of subscribing to creeds insofar as they agree with Scripture rather than because they are a faithful explanations of what the Scriptures teach. This is especially true in the Presbyterian tradition and that is where you find most of those who deny the eternal generation of the Son.

This is also the symptom of another problem in Calvinism and in other ways in Roman Catholicism. They do not view the faith as something to be handed down but as something that is under constant development. We have not become wiser than the fathers who received their doctrine of the Apostles. By thinking ourselves wiser we show ourselves to be fools. This can be seen in the many ways in which Calvinist Trinitarianism continues to traject in various directions. Especially among the disciples of Gordon Clark there seems to be no end to those who think they have figured out what nobody else has. The abandonment of the historic liturgy in much of Calvinism has resulted in non-Trinitarian forms of worship. Lip service is given to the Trinity but preaching is often just about an all powerful sovereign God. Pastors who deviate from Nicene Trinitarianism are often accepted as long as they confess the limited atonement and other unique Calvinistic doctrines.

But the doctrine of the Trinity was central to early Christian church as can be seen in the creeds and the liturgy. When the Trinity becomes secondary there is a lack of continuity with the church that Jesus built and continues to build. If we do not worship the Trinity we worship a different god. God is not just some uncreated creator who sovereignly acts. Glen Scriviner provides 13 disastrous implications of viewing God first as the uncreated Creator rather than as the Trinity. I disagree and omit one of them but the rest are spot on:

1.) You will never get to a Nicene trinity – you must deny ‘God from God’ – a begotten deity. (This was the danger Calvin courted (and those who have followed him.)) click here for more
2) You make God both dependent on creation and shut out from it
3) You will therefore never know God – that is, God in Himself.
4) Faith therefore becomes not a laying hold of God but of intermediary pledges from the unknown God.
5) Assurance becomes impossible – the hidden and unreachable God determines all
6) Salvation becomes not a participation in God but a status conferred external to Him.
8) Evangelism entails the impossible task of introducing Jesus into a pre-formed deistic doctrine of God. “I always believed in God, but the evangelist showed me how Jesus is also that god-I’d-always-believed-in.” Jesus gets squeazed and dissolved into the pagan’s god.
9) In your Christology you will uphold the fundamental incommensurability of ‘Unoriginate’ attributes and ‘originate’ attributes. Thus the Word cannot become flesh and the fulness of the divine nature cannot dwell bodily in Jesus. This is because Christ’s bodily form does not allow for your pre-supposed divine attributes (assumed according to the ‘Uncreated Creator’ definition of God). You will therefore ‘lock off’ certain divine attributes from the realm of Jesus’ flesh – i.e. you will become Nestorian.
10) You will define God’s Glory in terms of aseity – making Him the most selfish Being in the universe rather than the most giving.
11) Christ crucified then becomes a bridge to God’s glory rather than the very expression of it. (A theologia gloriae rather than theologia crucis).
12) You will consider “Glorifying God” to mean ‘what we give to Him’ – our worship etc (works!) – rather than ‘being swallowed up in His communion of other-centred love’ (faith!).
13) If God is fundamentally an individual, the Christian life becomes individualised. Instead it ought to be communal – a participation with and among persons.


David Gray said...

Your quote of Calvin on the Nicene Creed is not attributed. I've not been able to find any Calvin source that contains that quote. I did find where Warfield uses it and sources it to Schaff but when I check Schaff I don't find it there either. Reymond has tried to push that Calvin was anti-Nicene but has been refuted in a variety of settings. I think the basis for your article may be suspect and you may wish to examine this.

Chuck Wiese said...

Actually if you check the footnote for the citation in Warfield it says: Ibid., pp. 315-316 which seems to refer back to citation 35 which says: Adv. P. Caroli calumnias. I'm not sure if Calvin pamphlet against Caroli has been translated into English. I wasn't able to find it on the web anywhere. I wasn't able to track down the Latin either. I'm sure it has to be out there somewhere. I can't imagine that Warfield would make the quote up. But when I have some time I'll try to find the Latin somewhere.

David Gray said...

Thanks, I must have referenced the wrong footnote. Schaff does refer to Caroli but nothing regarding the Nicene Creed.

Anonymous said...

I realize that this comes somewhat late, but thought that you might like to know that the text can be found in vol. 35 of the Corpus Reformatorum series, to which Google Books has a URL: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=qSYBAAAAQAAJ&pg=RA39-PA1&dq=%22de+scandalis+quibus+hodie%22&lr=&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=%22de%20scandalis%20quibus%20hodie%22&f=false

The quote you have given is embedded within a larger statement that supposedly represents the language of a previous debate between Calvin and Petrus Carolus, and it is therefore difficult to know whether much of it is to be taken seriously or if it should be seen as simply ironic. Also, Calvin does not criticize the use of condemnatory language in the Athanasian Creed as such (at least not here), but instead seems to be making fun of Carolus for his own misstatement; he says, 'Concerning the Creed of Athanasius he joked in this fashion: You declared, Carolus, against him, "Whoever has not held this faith cannot be saved." However, you do not hold it. For you, however long you struggled at it, could not even get as far as the fourth verse. And what if death should now come upon you? The devil would deal with you, because you, at the beginning of your words, devote yourself to eternal destruction, if you were not armed with the presenting keeping of this faith.'

I hope this helps!


David Gray said...

Thanks! I wish my language skills were better.

Anonymous said...

What about in the Old Testament? Hebrews back then confessed God as being "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob", rather than in terms of a trinity (which had not been fully revealed to them yet). Were they confessing a different god? I fully agree with Nicea as much as anybody, but I'm not going to call all the Old Testament Israelites pagans because they didn't know about the Trinity yet.

Chuck Wiese said...

I do think you can still find the Trinity in the Old Testament. However, faith clings to what God reveals. The doctrine of the Trinity isn't as clear in the Old Testament as it is in the New.