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John Calvin’s Institutes (ICR) > Book 1, Chapter 13, Section 4 to Book 1, Chapter 13, Section 25

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message 1: by Alex, Moderator (last edited May 20, 2018 09:15PM) (new)

Alex | 356 comments Mod
We now continue our study on the topic of the Trinity. As a quick review, here are some of the important terms that we learned at the end of our last session:

Being (Greek: ousia), essence (Latin: essentia), and substance (Latin: substantia): These terms collectively refer to the entire Godhead as a whole. God is of one essence, one being, and of a single substance. The “being,” “essence,” and “substance” of God is what God is as a whole.
Subsistence (Greek: hypostasis) and person (Greek: prosopon; Latin: persona): These terms were used by the church to defend the self-existence of the three persons. The distinctions within God (referred to as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) are called persons.


4. & 5. Theological terms (such as Trinity, Person, etc.) were carefully chosen to distinguish between true and false teaching. Precise terminology has always been needed to expose false teachers in the church, who often hide themselves behind ambiguous language. Calvin reminds us that “these terms were not rashly invented” (p. 125).

For example, the Nicene Creed (325 AD), which stated that the Son is “of one substance with the Father” (consubstantial; literally, homoousios), exposed the error of Arianism (which taught that Christ was created and subordinate to the Father). “Here impiety boiled over when the Arians began most wickedly to hate and curse the word homoousios. But if at first they had sincerely and wholeheartedly confessed Christ to be God, they would not have denied him to be consubstantial with the Father… Yet that mere word marked the distinction between Christians of pure faith and sacrilegious Arians” (p. 125).

Calvin admits the limits of human language in expressing the mysterious truth of the Trinity (e.g., using the term “subsistence” or hypostasis to denote the distinction between the three persons of the Trinity), but we have no better alternative. “On account of the poverty of human speech in so great a matter, the word ‘hypostasis’ had been forced upon us by necessity, not to express what it is, but only not to be silent on how Father, Son, and Spirit are three” (p. 127).

6. Calvin defines the term person. “‘Person,’ therefore, I call a ‘subsistence’ in God’s essence, which, while related to the others, is distinguished by an incommunicable quality. By the term ‘subsistence’ we would understand something different from ‘essence’… Now, of the three subsistences I say that each one, while related to the others, is distinguished by a special quality… Whatever is proper to each individually, I maintain to be incommunicable because whatever is attributed to the Father as a distinguishing mark cannot agree with, or be transferred to, the Son” (p. 128). We will study this distinction more in points #18, 19, and 20 below.

7. to 13. The deity of the Son is defended. “It is necessary to understand the Word as begotten of the Father before time” and the Son “is himself the eternal and essential Word of the Father” (p. 129). The deity of the Son is clearly affirmed by Scripture, which teaches that the Word was “from the beginning with God, was at the same time the cause of all things, together with God the Father [John 1:1-3]… Unchangeable, the Word abides everlastingly one and the same with God, and is God himself” (p. 130).

The Son is eternal. “The Word had existed long before God said, ‘Let there be light’ [Genesis 1:3] and the power of the Word emerged and stood forth. Yet if anyone should inquire how long before, he will find no beginning… Therefore we again state that the Word, conceived beyond the beginning of time by God, has perpetually resided with him. By this, his eternity, his true essence, and his divinity are proved” (p. 131).

The Old Testament teaches that the Son is God. For example, “Christ is brought forward by Isaiah both as God and as adorned with the highest power, which is the characteristic mark of the one God. ‘This is,’ he says, ‘the name by which they will call him, Mighty God, Father of the coming age,’ etc. [Isaiah 9:6]” (pp. 131-132). As another example, “nothing clearer can be found than the passage of Jeremiah, that ‘this will be the name by which the branch of David will be called, “Jehovah our Righteousness”’ [Jeremiah 23:5-6; cf. ch. 33:15-16]” (p.132).

There are numerous appearances in the Old Testament of a figure named the Angel of the Lord (e.g., to Hagar, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Gideon, Manoah, etc.). “To the holy patriarchs an angel is said to have appeared, claiming for himself the name the Eternal God [Judges 6:11, 12, 20, 21, 22; 7:5, 9]… The orthodox doctors of the church have rightly and prudently interpreted that chief angel to be God’s Word, who already at that time, as a sort of foretaste, began to fulfill the office of Mediator. For even though he was not yet clothed with flesh, he came down, so to speak, as an intermediary, in order to approach believers more intimately” (p. 133).

The New Testament also testifies that the Son is God. The apostles interpret numerous Old Testament passages in light of Christ. For example, “John testifies that it was the glory of the Son which had been revealed through Isaiah’s vision [John 12:41; Isaiah 6:1], even though the prophet himself writes that he saw the majesty of God” (pp. 134-135). Moreover, the apostles often explicitly acknowledge Christ to be God. Paul states that “God was manifested in the flesh” (1 Timothy 3:16) and that “God has purchased the church by his blood” [Acts 20:28]. Thomas proclaims Christ to be his Lord and God (John 20:28); etc.

The Son’s divinity is apparent from his works. Christ declared that he worked alongside the Father, and this was understood to be a claim of being divine. “Indeed, when [Christ] said that he had been working hitherto from the beginning with the Father [John 5:17], the Jews… sensed that he made use of divine power. And therefore, as John states, ‘the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the Sabbath, but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God’ [John 5:18]” (p. 136). The works which Christ attributes to himself is “to govern the universe with providence and power, and to regulate all things by the command of his own power [Hebrews 1:3]” (p. 136). “The Lord proclaims through the prophet, ‘I, even I, am the one who blots out your transgressions for my own sake’ [Isaiah 43:25]… Christ not only asserted in words, but also proved by miracle, that this power [to forgive sins] belonged to him [Matthew 9:6]… From this we infer his divinity” (p. 136).

“Moreover, if apart from God there is no salvation, no righteousness, no life, yet Christ contains all these in himself, God is certainly revealed… And if no one but God is good [Matthew 19:17], how could a mere man be — I do not say good and just — but goodness and justice itself? Why is it that, by the testimony of the Evangelist, life was in him from the beginning of Creation [John 1:4]? Accordingly, relying upon such proofs, we dare put our faith and hope in him” (p. 137). Indeed, “the whole fullness of divinity dwells bodily” in Christ (Colossians 2:9).

14. to 15. The deity of the Spirit is also defended. As is the case with the Son, there are ample biblical proofs that the Spirit is divine. “For what Scripture attributes to him [the Spirit] and we ourselves learn by the sure experience of godliness is far removed from the creatures. For it is the Spirit who, everywhere diffused, sustains all things, causes them to grow, and quickens them in heaven and in earth. Because he is circumscribed by no limits, he is excepted from the category of creatures; but in transfusing into all things his energy, and breathing into them essence, life, and movement, he is indeed plainly divine” (p. 138). The most astonishing work of the Spirit is regeneration, which is the partaking of incorruptible life. “Now, Scripture teaches in many places that he is the author of regeneration not by borrowing but by his very own energy… In short, upon him [the Spirit], as upon the Son, are conferred functions that especially belong to divinity… [The Scripture] very clearly attributes to the Spirit divine power, and shows that He resides hypostatically in God” (pp. 138-139).

Numerous times, Scripture applies the title of God to the Spirit. For example, “Paul concludes that we are the temple of God from the fact that his Spirit dwells in us [1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16]... For, while God indeed frequently promises that he will choose us as a temple for himself, this promise is not otherwise fulfilled than by his Spirit dwelling in us… Indeed, Peter, rebuking Ananias for lying to the Holy Spirit, says that he has lied not to men but to God [Acts 5:3-4]… [Furthermore], if blasphemy against the Spirit is remitted neither in this age nor in the age to come, although he who has blasphemed against the Son may obtain pardon [Matthew 12:31; Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10], by this his divine majesty, to injure or diminish which is an inexpiable crime, is openly declared” (pp. 139-140).

16. The Father, Son, and Spirit are one God. “It is quite clear that in God’s essence reside three persons in whom one God is known” (p. 140). Here, Calvin uses Christian baptism as a proof of the unity of the three Persons. “For Paul so connects these three — God, faith, and baptism [Ephesians 4:5]… Therefore, if through baptism we are initiated into the faith and religion of one God, we must consider him into whose name we are baptized to be the true God. Indeed, there is no doubt that Christ willed by this solemn pronouncement to testify that the perfect light of faith was manifested when he said, ‘Baptize them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost’ [Matthew 28:19]. For this means precisely to be baptized into the name of the one God who has shown himself with complete clarity in the Father, the Son, and the Spirit” (p. 140).

17. The three Persons are distinct but not divided. Calvin begins this section by marveling at the mystery of the Trinity, warning us to approach any study of the subject with “much reverence and sobriety.” He quotes Gregory of Nazianzus: “No sooner do I conceive of the One that I am illumined by the Splendor of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Them than I am carried back to the One.

“Indeed, the words ‘Father,’ ‘Son,’ and ‘Spirit’ imply a real distinction — let no one think that these titles, whereby God is variously designated from his works, are empty — but a distinction, not a division… Furthermore, it was not the Father who descended upon the earth, but he who went forth from the Father; the Father did not die, nor did he arise again, but rather he who had been sent by the Father. Nor did this distinction have its beginning from the time that he assumed flesh, but before this also it is manifest that he was the only-begotten ‘in the bosom of the Father’ [John 1:18... Christ implies the distinction of the Holy Spirit from the Father when he says that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father [John 15:26; cf. ch. 14: 26]. He implies the distinction of the Holy Spirit from himself as often as he calls the Spirit ‘another,’ as when he announces that he will send another Comforter [John 14:16]” (pp. 141-142).

message 2: by Alex, Moderator (new)

Alex | 356 comments Mod
18. The three Persons of the Trinity are distinguished in Scripture: “to the Father is attributed the beginning of activity, and the fountain and wellspring of all things; to the Son, wisdom, counsel, and the ordered disposition of all things; but to the Spirit is assigned the power and efficacy of that activity (pp. 142-143).

The three Persons are distinguished by a logical order, but not a temporal order. “Indeed, although the eternity of the Father is also the eternity of the Son and the Spirit, since God could never exist apart from his wisdom and power, and we must not seek in eternity a before or an after, nevertheless the observance of an order is not meaningless or superfluous, when the Father is thought of as first, then from him the Son, and finally from both the Spirit. For the mind of each human being is naturally inclined to contemplate God first, then the wisdom coming forth from him, and lastly the power whereby he executes the decrees of his plan” (p. 143).

19. & 20. The distinction between the three persons does not contradict the unity of God’s essence. “For in each hypostasis the whole divine nature is understood, with this qualification — that to each belongs his own peculiar quality. The Father is wholly in the Son, the Son wholly in the Father, even as he himself declares: ‘I am in the Father, and the Father in me’ [John 14:10]” (p. 143). When we speak of distinctions within the Trinity, we are specifically referring to “their mutual relationships and not the very substance by which they are one” (p. 143). These mutual relationships are such that the Father is unbegotten and ‘the fountain of deity,’ the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.

This is why Augustine can say: “Christ with respect to himself is called God; with respect to the Father, Son. Again, the Father with respect to himself is called God; with respect to the Son, Father. In so far as he is called Father with respect to the Son, he is not the Son; in so far as he is called the Son with respect to the Father, he is not the Father” (p. 144). Each Person in the Trinity is rightly called God, but in relation to each other, each possesses a peculiar (non-communicable, non-transferrable) quality. “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” (p. 144).

Calvin summarizes everyone as follows: “we profess to believe in one God, under the name of God is understood a single, simple essence, in which we comprehend three persons, or hypostases. Therefore, whenever the name of God is mentioned without particularization, there are designated no less the Son and the Spirit than the Father; but where the Son is joined to the Father, then the relation of the two enters in; and so we distinguish among the persons. But because the peculiar qualities in the persons carry an order within them, e.g., in the Father is the beginning and the source, so often as mention is made of the Father and the Son together, or the Spirit, the name of God is peculiarly applied to the Father. In this way, unity of essence is retained, and a reasoned order is kept, which yet takes nothing away from the deity of the Son and the Spirit” (p. 144).

Calvin concludes this section by cautioning against vain speculations by “penetrating into the subline mystery” and instead encourages us to “love soberness” and to “be content with the measure of faith” given to us to receive what is “useful to know” (p. 144).

21. Satan primarily fights against the church by opposing the truth of God and by introducing many false doctrines and heresies. Therefore, Calvin reminds us to “use great caution that neither our thoughts nor our speech go beyond the limits to which the Word of God itself extends” (p. 146). Concerning who God is, only God is fit to give testimony of himself. Therefore, we should “conceive him to be as he reveals himself to us, without inquiring about him elsewhere than from his Word” (p. 146). “And let us not take it into our heads either to seek out God anywhere else than in his Sacred Word, or to think anything about him that is not prompted by his Word, or to speak anything that is not taken from that Word” (p. 146).

22. to 25. In this section, Calvin responds to various antitrinitarian teachings. When it comes to antitrinitarian heresy, there is nothing new under the sun. We threats we face are no different than those posed in the early church. “Indeed, if we hold fast to what has been sufficiently shown above from Scripture — that the essence of the one God is simple and undivided, and that it belongs to the Father, the Son, and the Spirit; and on the other hand that by a certain characteristic the Father differs from the Son, and the Son from the Spirit — the gate will be closed not only to Arius and Sabellius but to other ancient authors of errors” (p. 147).

One of the most controversial figures during Calvin’s day was the humanist Michael Servetus. He was known for promoting antitrinitarian heresy and was condemned by both Roman Catholics and Protestants alike. “For Servetus the name ‘Trinity’ was so utterly hateful and detestable that he commonly labeled all those whom he called Trinitarians as atheists” (p. 147). Servetus believed that “the persons to be certain external ideas which do not truly subsist in God’s essence, but represent God to us in one manifestation or another” (p. 147). He believed that each “person” in the Trinity is nothing more than a visible manifestation of God’s glory. Servetus promoted the error of Sabellianism (a form of modalism). Calvin responds by calling Servetus’ teaching a “monstrous fabrication.”

Turning from this, Calvin addresses the error of Arianism, an antitrinitarian heresy that teaches that Christ did not always exist but was rather a creature created at a point in time and subordinate to the Father. “For certain rascals… indeed confessed that there are three persons; but they added the provision that the Father, who is truly and properly the sole God, in forming the Son and the Spirit, infused into them his own deity. Indeed, they do not refrain from this dreadful manner of speaking: the Father is distinguished from the Son and the Spirit by this mark, that he is the only ‘essence giver’” (p. 149). “The essence of God, if these babblers are to be believed, belongs to the Father only, inasmuch as he alone is, and is the essence giver of the Son. Thus the divinity of the Son will be something abstracted from God’s essence, or a part derived from the whole. Now they are compelled from their own presupposition to concede that the Spirit is of the Father alone, because if he is a derivation from the primal essence, which is proper only to the Father, he will not rightly be considered the Spirit of the Son” (p. 150).

Responding to these errors, Calvin points out that the following. “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; but inasmuch as the Father is first in order, and from himself begot his wisdom, as has just been said he is rightly deemed the beginning and fountainhead of the whole of divinity. Thus God without particularization is unbegotten; and the Father also in respect to his person is unbegotten… We do not separate the persons from the essence, but we distinguish among them while they remain within it” (pp. 153-154).

Furthermore, Calvin rejects the allegation that Trinitarian belief is polytheistic. “We say that 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” (p. 154). Finally, Calvin warns against the error of making the essence of God synonymous with the Father. “If Father and God were synonymous, thus would the Father be the deifier; nothing would be left in the Son but a shadow; and the Trinity would be nothing else but the conjunction of the one God with two created things” (p. 154).

In the next reading group meeting, we will finish our study of the Trinity and begin the next section on God’s creation.

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