Trinitarian Background Material
The discussions below are based in the early church's discussions about the nature of Jesus and his relationship with God. The button below offers two of the early creeds and some information about terms and people mentioned by Calvin
Book 1 - Chapter 13 (Parts 1-2)
IN SCRIPTURE, FROM THE CREATION ONWARD, WE ARE TAUGHT ONE ESSENCE OF GOD, WHICH CONTAINS THREE PERSONS
Up to this point in his Institutes Calvin has been discussing how we can know, or not know, who God is. While we can know something about God from the world around us, Calvin argues that knowing God means knowing the God we discover through the scriptures. In this chapter Calving enters into his first discussion about what scripture teaches us about God. In this article we will look at the language that the church and Calvin have used to deal with the Trinity
First though a bit of historical background. As the church began to take its place as the official religion of the Roman Empire (in the early-300s) it began to debate the nature of Jesus and later the Spirit. Was Jesus human? Was Jesus divine? Was Jesus both? How was the Spirit related to God and to Jesus? The church held a series of Councils beginning in Nicaea (325 CE) in order to come to agreement. The creed which emerged from Nicaea (later called the Nicene Creed) and later Councils used language which was not entirely Biblical, but came from the Greek philosophical world, in order to deal with these questions. Calvin will use these terms in his defense of the Doctrine of the Trinity.
Summary: This lesson begins with Calvin reminding us that God is in fact ultimately unknowable because God’s nature is “immeasurable and spiritual.” (pg. 120) Nonetheless he writes that “For he (God) so proclaims himself the sole God as to offer himself to be contemplated clearly in three persons.” (pg. 122) This observation then introduces us to the first term, “person.” The Greek for this is “hypostasis” and means “individual existence.” This term for Calvin and the church implies that Father, Son and Spirit have distinct realities/existences of their own…they are not merely God appearing in different disguises at different times. Calvin puts it this way. “Therefore...it follows that there are in God three hypostasis.” (Pg. 123) This is critical if we are to make sense of Jesus praying to the Father, or the Spirit coming to Jesus. They are individual “persons”.
The second term is “essence.” The Greek word for this is “ousia” which means the most basic substance of something. Consider how we speak of the essence of things. When we do so we mean their basic reality. Essence for Calvin then is a description of the nature of God’s oneness; in other words, God is one essence, one unity. “For since the essence of God is simple and undivided, and he contains all in himself without portion or derivation, but in integral perfection…” (pg. 122) Thus Calvin can speak of God being one essence but three persons.
While the terms essence, person and Trinity are not Biblical, Calvin believes that they help Christians better understand the nature of God. He in fact entitles one sub-section of this chapter, “The expressions “Trinity and “Person” aid the interpretation of Scripture and are therefore admissible.” (Pg. 123) Calvin sums up this teaching in this way: “…that Father and Son and Spirit are one God, yet the Son is not the Father, nor is the Spirit the Son, but that they are differentiated by a peculiar quality.” (pg. 126)
What Calvin is attempting to do is to maintain the orthodox (meaning accepted by the majority of churches) belief that there is one God and not three; yet at the same time each of the three members of the God-head (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) are all distinct parts of God.
Reflection: This is probably the most difficult doctrine of the church. How is it that God can be one (monotheism) and yet be three (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). There have been a number of ways in which people have attempted to offer a way of thinking about this: fire, heat and light is one. My way is to think of the egg. It is one essence, the egg, but it has three parts, shell, yoke and white. You cannot say that the shell is the yoke, etc. But at the same time, they are all one. This is a simplistic image, yet I hope that it helps.
In our last article (Book 1 – Chapter 13 (lesson 1)) we looked at Calvin’s defense of the orthodox (meaning accepted by most churches) view of the Trinity. This can be summed up as, God is one (Calvin uses the term, one essence) but is also experienced as Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Calvin speaks of these as three persons). Thus God is one but three. As I noted, this is probably the most difficult of all Christian doctrines to fully, or even partially, understand. What we need to also remember is that there were other churches (non-orthodox, or heretical…take your pick) which did not believe in the Trinity. In fact early in the life of the church, the Nestorian Church (which stretched from Persia to India to China and which did not believe in the Trinity) was much larger than the Roman Church. Though the Christians in Europe had long believed in the triune nature of God, in the time of Calvin more and more people began to question this doctrine. In order to prove that the orthodox (Trinitarian) position was correct, Calvin not only had to explain it, but he had to prove that it was Biblical as well. In this lesson we will look at his Biblical proofs for the Divinity of both Jesus and the Spirit.
Summary: Calvin begins with a discussion of the “Word.” While many of us are familiar with the “Word” from the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” (John 1:1), it is important to understand that the term “Word” had a long history within Judaism. The Word was equated with the eternal wisdom of God. This wisdom was not a collection of sayings, but was somehow alive and intimately a part of God. Proverbs 8:22 and 8:30 put it this way, and this is Wisdom speaking, “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago…then I was beside God like a master worker.” Calvin writes. “It is necessary to understand the Word as begotten (meaning not created like you and I were created) of the Father before time.” (pg. 129) This connection of the Word with God is essential to Calvin’s arguments about the divinity of both Jesus and the Spirit, because the Word is also connected with Jesus and the Spirit.
Calvin begins with a defense of the Spirit as being divine because it is the voice of Wisdom. Calvin writes, “If that Spirit (meaning the Holy Spirit)…was the Spirit of the Word, we infer without any doubt that he was truly God.” (pg. 129) In other words if God=Word and Word=Spirit then Spirit=God.
Calvin next takes up the divinity of Jesus by reminding us that Jesus is the Word made flesh. Thus God=Word, Word=Jesus, Jesus=God. Calvin also offers a defense of Jesus’s divinity from the Old Testament from Isaiah 9:6 (among several Old Testament references) which reads, “For a child has been born for us, a son is given to us…and he is named…Mighty God, Everlasting Father….” He continues with New Testament proofs from Paul where the Apostle refers to Jesus as “Lord of Hosts” (Romans 9:32-33), declares that Jesus will judge all people (Romans 14:10) and states that Jesus was in the form of God (Philippians 2:6). The first two passages give to Jesus power which had previously only been given to God. The third passage shows God and Jesus intimately connected for all of time. Finally Calvin turns to Jesus’ miracles (miracles which God alone could do). As added proof Calvin refers to the baptismal formula where Jesus calls upon the church to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Finally, he sums up his position: “Namely that when we profess to believe in one God…which we comprehend as three persons...Therefore whenever the name of God is mentioned without particularization, there are designated no less the Son and the Spirit than the Father.” (pg. 144)
Reflection: The importance of maintaining this position is not simply to defend Orthodoxy, but to defend the understanding that when we view Jesus, we are viewing God; and that when we are touched by the Spirit of God, we are being touched by both Jesus and God. If this were not the case then in Jesus’ teachings and in the Spirits actions we would not be interacting with the one true living God.