The Doctrine of the Trinity

Chapter Summary of Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion

Book One, Chapter XIII – In Scripture From the Creation Onward, We Are Taught One Essence of God, Which Contains Three Persons

It is a curious assumption to think that one should expect to be capable of comprehending God by empirical sense experience alone. The Scriptures teach that he is an infinite, immeasurable spirit. Incorrectly interpreting biblical teachings regarding God’s attributes has been the root of many mis-apprehensions and heresies regarding the nature of God.

While the term “Trinity” is not itself found in Scripture it accurately and helpfully describes the clear biblical teaching of the unity of one essence in the plurality of three persons as the appropriate understanding of God as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Said another way, this doctrine can be said to teach that God is one in nature and three in substance.

In what largely amounts to a non-substantive quibbling over words, misunderstandings of this doctrine have led many dissenters to reject it altogether (Unitarians) and others to reject the term “Trinity” as polytheistic. Regarding the latter, one such group are the Modalists who reject the idea that God is three “persons”. Instead, they explain that the Scriptural instances of God being described as Father, Son and Spirit, are the various manifestations of God in human history based on what was being accomplished in his dealings with man. That is to say, God exists in three different modes depending on his necessary role or function, but ever remains one essence married to one person.

The writer to the Hebrews referred to the Son as “the exact imprint of the Father’s nature (hypostasis)” [1:3]. This statement assumes a distinction of subsistence between the Father and the Son as it would be a foolishness for Paul to state that the latter is the imprint if in fact the nature of both are one and the same. For the Son is a unique person (prosopa) or subsistence who contains the identical nature of the Father – the Word was always with God and the Word was God [John 1:1]. So, what Paul is teaching is that it is the hypostasis of the latter that is made visible in the former, just as he has described the Son not as being the Father’s glory itself, but rather “the splendor of his glory” [1:3].

The foregoing, easily confused, teaching is simply and neatly packaged in the term Trinity. While it is no doubt important to be ever vigilant in our efforts to spot error, to pervert or reject an entire doctrine solely on the basis that the word used to described it is a convention of man is unnecessary, misguided and has led many into the heresy they were so desperate to avoid. In fact, the church has used this very doctrine of the Trinity in particular as a litmus test of orthodoxy; notably in its rebuke of Arianism (that Christ is God but created) and Sebellianism (that there is no distinction at all). It then can be said that this “new” term is not one arbitrarily coined, but rather was “forced upon us by necessity.”

Calvin turns now to Old and New Testament evidences for the deity of Christ. Evidence that the Word is distinct from God and in fact is Christ was spoken of by Peter who proclaimed that the Word, the everlasting Wisdom, resides with God [1 Pet. 1:10-11; 2 pet. 1:21]. Moses teaches that God employed the Word in creation [Gen 1]. John’s well known passage previously noted insists on the coeternal existence of this Word with God from the beginning [1:1-3]. So, Jesus is the Word and has ever been with God. To those who would argue that God added Jesus to himself at the creation of the universe, James would take exception in proclaiming that with God “there is no variation or shadow of change” [1:17]. Jesus himself claims his coeternal glory with the Father in John 17:5.

The Old Testament prophets no less taught of Christ though with less specific illumination. Isaiah foretold the name by which the Mediator would be called, “Mighty God, Father of the coming age” [9:6] and Jeremiah labels this “branch of David” and “Jehovah our Righteousness” [23:5-6]. The fact that God is a jealous God and will share his glory with no other [Isa. 42:8] is further evidence that this “other” one to whom the eternal throne will be bestowed and glory is to be ascribed is God but distinct from the Father.

Frequently in the Old Testament an “angel of the Lord” is seen. This however is no mere angel. This is a manifestation of the pre-incarnate Christ to whom honor and sacrifice is owed [Judg. 13:16, 18, 20; 22; Gen. 32:29-30; 1 Cor. 10:4; Zech 2:3]. Added to this, throughout the New Testament the apostles interchangeably speak of the attributes of and glory due God and apply them to the Father and the Son. Paul proclaims that Christ “was in the form of God” and is “equal with God” [Phil. 2:6-7; cf. 1 Tim. 3:16; Acts 20:28], and recorded in John’s gospel is the fact that he has been working from the beginning with the Father [5:17]. Not only was Christ affirmed as God by the apostle, he gave demonstrable evidences of divinity through miracles and the power of the forgiveness of sins [Matt. 9:4-5]. As such, salvation is taught in the New Testament to be found in Christ [e.g, John 6:47]. This agrees with Old Testament prophecy regarding salvation in Jehovah [Joel 2:32; Prov. 18:10].

Just as Christ is proven to be coequal and coeternal with the Father, so it is with the Spirit. At the act of creation “the Spirit of God was spread over the deeps” [Gen. 1:2]. By the Spirit men are empowered [Isa. 48:16]. The Spirit, unlike anything not divine in itself, “searches…even the depths of God” [1 Cor. 2:10]. This same Spirit displays divine sovereignty [Cor. 12:11]. He dwells in man as the “temple” of God [1 Cor. 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor. 6:16]. Paul’s rebuke to Ananias in lying to the Holy Spirit is that his lie was to God [Acts 5:3-4]. Perhaps most significantly, it is blasphemy against the Spirit only that remains unpardonable [Matt. 12:31].

Before moving to heresies regarding the Trinity we can conclude its biblical teaching by way of summary. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are one God by whom salvation is founded on one faith and demonstrated by one baptism [Eph. 4:5]. Yes, they are distinct persons made plain by the very names Scripture uses to speak of them. However, this is to be carefully seen as distinction, not division. “[The Son is] in the Father, and the Father is in the [Son] [John 14:10] and the Spirit is shared between them. It is the Father who began the divine activity, the Son who ordered their disposition and the Spirit who provides the power for their accomplishment.

Our understanding of this “tri-unity”, this sameness with distinction, has, since the closing of the canon, been under attack from many directions. In Calvin’s own day Servetus, opposing Trinitarians as atheists, asserted that Son and Spirit contain in themselves a part of God just as does man and the rest of creation, animate and inanimate. This is refuted easily in that the Spirit supported the formless world [Gen. 1:1] and Christ is identified as the very Word of God [John 1:1]. To mingle such attributes, which themselves necessitate deity, with that of the creation is pure foolishness. There can be no antithesis between the Father and the Son. Because he is begotten eternally by the Father and he humbly assumes a subordinate role in his person does not contradict his equality with God; indeed, they are identical in essence.

Scripture is replete with references to Christ as God. Christ himself inquires of the rich young man, “Why do you call me good?”. He then explains that “[n]o one is good except God alone” [Mark 10:18] In this interaction Christ is implying that if he is good it is because he is God and this man needs to recognize this fact. Indeed, says Calvin, “I ask whether the eternal Word of God is good or not.” Paul affirms Christ’s deity in ascribing to him divine characteristics [1 Tim. 1:17; Rom. 16:27; 3:4], being the one who was eternally equal to God before he “humbled himself” [Phil. 2:6-7] and to whom “every knee should bow” [2:10]. It is the uncreated God, including all three persons of the Trinity, in whose image man was made [Gen. 1:26]. Also, the fact that Christ subordinated himself to the Father is no evidence that he relinquished the shared divine essence [Phil. 2:7; Heb. 2:7, 9; 1:10] as some assert appealing to John 14:28: “…because the Father is greater than I.” This is rather simply recognition by Christ that in human flesh the splendor of his glory is diminished relative to the Father. John elsewhere explicitly asserts Christ’s deity [John 1:1; 1 John 5:20].

Adversaries of Trinitarian doctrine then appeal to the writings of various church fathers to bolster their dissent. By way of example, they assert such of Iranaeus’ teaching that the Father of Christ is the sole and eternal God of Israel. This objection and those constructed from excerpts of Tertullian, Augustine and many since, are easily answer by the writer themselves if one simply reads further into the theological corpus of each. As for Iranaeus, by his statement he was rebuffing those in his day who argued that the Father of Christ was not the same God that spoke through Moses and the prophets. Tertullian, most particularly in his refutation Against Praxeas, clearly and vigorously upholds a firm Trinitarian understanding. As for Augustine, his writings too clearly take for granted the necessity of the Trinity.

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The Providence of God

Chapter Summary of Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion
Book One, Chapter XVI – God by His Power Nourishes and Maintains the World Created by Him, and Rules Its Several Parts by His Providence.

Understanding God as Creator of his universe necessitates an understanding as well of his divine providence in the continuing existence of his creation. According to the author of Hebrews, faith is requisite for understanding that the creation was “by the word of God” [11:3] and it is he who sustains all he has made [Matt. 10:29]. Paul specifies more particularly also that it is in God that we “live and move and have our being” [Acts 17:28].
Our God being sovereignly providential over all of creation for all time [Aside: He did not wind it up and let it go as if under its own power as the deists insist] has in fact left nothing to chance. The creation order itself suggests this. For God created many of those things (vegetation, etc.) that would require the sun for survival and caused them to flourish before he created the sun itself [Gen. 1:3]. That God chooses various means in the course of his providential care (like the sun) is no confirmation that he could not at any moment abandon their use and do perfectly without them. From man’s limited perspective chance occurrences are often conclusory as evidence of causation is most often lacking. However, man’s inability to identify the nidus of an effect is not proof of its want. We need look no farther than to the secret plan of the one who has numbered all the hairs of our heads [Matt. 10:30].
It is in this assurance of God’s providential care that his children are free to obediently do good, without fear, in the knowledge that they are undergirded by the very power of the Almighty [Jer. 10:2] who decrees all that occurs and nothing occurs outside of his decree. This is contrary to those who would erroneously claim that God’s knowledge of future events is merely based on prescience. For God’s decrees do not simply guide, but rather they direct activities of his creation in general [Ps. 147:9; 146:9], that of man in particular [Jer. 10:23; Prov. 20:24], including the “disposition of [his] heart [and] the preparation of [his] tongue” [Prov. 16:1, 9]. Even the most random appearing occurrences, such as the rolling of dice, obey the commands of God’s will [Prov. 16:33]. Those events commonly attributed to “nature” too reside in his sovereign control – the wind [Ex. 16:13; Num. 11:31; Jonah 1:4], the flaming fires and the clouds [Ps. 104:3-4; Ps. 103:3-4], the waves of the sea [Ps. 107:29], for example. In the affairs of men, he grants children to some women and barrenness to others [Ps. 113:9], provides or withholds “bread” for nourishment [Isa. 3:1; Matt. 6:11; Ps. 136:25], and he numbers man’s days which are fixed by his divine will [Job 14:5].
Having begun to grasp the universality of God’s sovereign providence, we can then say with Calvin [paraphrasing Basil the Great] that “fortune and chance are pagan terms, with whose significance the minds of the godly ought not to be occupied” [italics added]. Indeed, the Philistines took refuge in fortune as it related to the course of the Ark [1 Sam. 6:9] only for this event to providential bear upon the conflict between Saul and David [1 Sam. 23:26-27]. Augustine agrees “that if anything is left to fortune, the world is aimlessly whirled about.” As God is the first Cause, the Cause of all causes, were anything to occur outside of his ordaining it thus, it would necessarily be said to have happened without cause – such thinking defies reason far more than to ascribe causation though not seen or understood.