Saturday, February 14, 2009

0 The Institutes: Calvin's Discussion of Orthodox Trinitarian Doctrine, Part I

Here I'm breaking out of the reading schedule, both because I'm badly behind thanks to the harried chaos of the past couple of weeks, but also because the units chosen in the Princeton schedule don't quite line up with good breaks in the material. In sections 1-6 of Chapter 13 of Book I, Calvin sets out to discuss the doctrine of the Trinity - and these sections serve as an important prolegomenon, setting up both the nature of theological language, and of the historical setting in which he is discussing the doctrine.

Calvin's determination as he begins discussion of the Trinity is to limit himself and his thoughts about the Trinity to what Scripture teaches, which follows directly on the heels of his previous arguments about the Holy Word of God. God has revealed Himself perfectly in His Word - and we need go no further (and indeed musn't go further) to describe Him. He writes, in discussing the attributes of God's immeasurableness (immensity) and His being spiritual, that, in presenting these attributes in Scripture,
"...even if God to keep us sober speaks sparingly of his essence, yet by those two titles that I have used he both banishes stupid imaginings and restrains the boldness of the human mind. Surely, his infinity ought to make us afraid to try to measure him out by our own senses. Indeed, his spiritual nature forbids our imagining anything earthly or carnal of him. (p. 121)"
Errors concerning God abound in the cults and in human imaginings not directly tied to cultic religions... and many of these errors come directly from men trying to comprehend the incomprehensible and give God properties that make conceiving of His being more readily possible. Calvin thus rightly points us to consider ONLY the Word of God - and the Word rightly understood together in all places - as our evidence of Who and What God is.

Calvin continues, then, to announce the three-ness of God, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as He portrays Himself to be in Scripture - there are indisputably three "persons" in God's being, despite our inability to comprehend exactly what that means. In section 3, Calvin argues for the propriety of using the word "Trinity" to describe God - in discussions I've had with Oneness Pentecostals in the past, this has been a significant bone of contention, since, as they argue, the actual word "Trinity" doesn't appear in Scripture. That fact, though, is irrelevant - many Scriptural summary words do not appear in Scripture, either, though the doctrine underlying the word we use for shorthand does. Wisely has the church used words like "Trinity" and "Person" to describe Scriptural doctrine and set boundaries on orthodox teaching. Like politicians of today, the impious "cloaked their errors in layers of verbiage." (p. 125) This is what I've called in the past the "Humpty Dumpty" tactic... using words that are in common with their opponents, pretending agreement because the same words are used, but relying on the deviation of "words mean what I mean they mean" in the end. Calvin continues, discussing the heretic Arius, who
"...confessed that Christ was God and the Son of God, and, as if he had done what was right, pretended some agreement with the other men. Yet in the meantime he did not cease to prate that Christ was created and had a beginning as other creatures. (p. 125)"
Hence we have the Council of Nicea in 325, at which council the discussion was centered on the Arian heresy and much of our current language concerning the Trinity was solidified. When opponents of truth claim commonality with the orthodox by using the same words (but secretly, or openly, as the case may be, meaning different things by the same words) the response often includes a more careful outlining of the truth through the use of other words whose meaning cannot be so jerrymandered to serve falsehood. Speaking of Sabellius, another heretic of an earlier age than Arius, and whose doctrine is at the heart of Oneness Pentecostalism and other modalist sects today, Calvin writes,
"Afterward Sabellius arose, who counted the names of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as almost of no importance, arguing that it was not because of any distinction that they were put forward, but that they were diverse attributes of God, of which sort there are very many. If it came to a debate, he was accustomed to confess that he recognized the Father as God, the Son as God, and the Spirit as God; but afterward a way out was found, contending that he had just said nothing else than if he had spoken of God as strong, and just, and wise. And so he re-echoed another old song, that the Father is the Son, and the Holy Spirit is the Father, without rank, without distinction. To shatter man's wickedness the upright doctors, who then had piety at heart, loudly responded that three properties must truly be recognized as one God. And that they might fortify themselves against his tortuous cunning with the open and simple truth, they truly affirmed that a trinity of persons subsists in the one God, or, what was the same thing, subsists in the unity of God. (p. 125)"
Let us not succumb to the postmodern tendency of agreeing to disagree over such things as these. It is not a small matter to distinguish between the three persons of God and the false doctrine that those three persons are just "modes of operation". Such false doctrines elevate man's finite and pathetic reason over the Revelation of God and Scripture simply because we cannot comprehend every detail and how these details finally fit together. Let us let Scripture be Scripture and submit to its teaching.

There is a limitation to theological terms, even as there is a necessity of using them, as Calvin points out in section 5. In the end, he says, we will not satisfy those who truly want to wrangle. Calvin urges us, and rightly so, to simply confess what we believe Scripture plainly teaches and be done with it. To honestly, humbly and without guile set forth doctrine is our task - to wrangle and "dally over words", as Calvin puts it, is not our place nor is it profitable.
"...I have long since and repeatedly been experiencing that all who persistently quarrel over words nurse a secret poison. As a consequence, it is more expedient to challenge them deliberately than speak more obscurely to please them. (p. 128)"
One need only refer to Calvin's letters and the registers of the Company of Genevan pastors to see how true this is in Calvin's experience.

Calvin closes this portion of chapter 13 with a succinct definition of the word "person" or "subsistence" as is more directly translated from the credal language. His argument rests on the fact that Scripture presents separateness among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, even as it presents their unity in the Godhead. This idea of "a subsistence", Calvin writes, "even though it has been joined with the essence by a common bond and cannot be separated from it, yet has a special mark whereby it is distinguished from it. Now of the three subsistences I say that each one, while related to the others, is distinguished by a special quality. (p. 128)" The Father is not the Son, nor is the Holy Spirit either the Father or Son. We see again and again in Scripture each of the three persons in communication with each other, or even together in the same Biblical passage, all three present and functioning simultaneously in different roles (e.g. the baptism of Jesus or the High Priestly prayer of John 17). This discussion of economy among the Trinity is Calvin's starting point for discussion in this important chapter of this critical doctrine. Next, he establishes the deity of all three persons, and I'll take this up next.



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