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The Trinity in the Reformers

Abstract and Keywords

This article examines the thoughts and views of Protestant Reformers on the Trinity. It highlights the efforts of the Reformers, in light of the new exegetical modes arising with the Renaissance, to articulate Trinitarian doctrine biblically with a focus on the economy of salvation rather than on metaphysical or logical debates per se, although the Reformers engaged in those too when necessary. It considers the relationship between the Reformers and ecumenical Trinitarian orthodoxy and describes the shape of early Protestant Trinitarian thought as it is expressed in exegesis, dogmatics, and catechesis.

Keywords: Protestant Reformers, Trinity, exegetical modes, economy of salvation, Trinitarian orthodoxy, Protestant Trinitarian, catechesis

The doctrine of the Trinity as received and confessed by the ecumenical Church was not a point of dispute between Rome and the Protestant Reformers. Despite occasional claims to the contrary, the major theologians of the Reformation era (c.1517–78), including Martin Luther (1483–1546), Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560), Martin Bucer (1491–1551), Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531), Heinrich Bullinger (1504–75), Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499–1562), and John Calvin (1509–64), embraced the Church's traditional doctrine and vigorously opposed the rising tide of anti-Trinitarianism that emerged in the sixteenth century. However, the Reformers’ largely conservative stance towards the doctrine did not translate into a lack of interest in Trinitarian theology, nor did it contribute to a lack of doctrinal development. An analysis of the Reformers’ biblical commentaries, dogmatic treatises, and catechetical works reveals the opposite to be the case. Because they were committed to grounding all ecclesial dogmas in Holy Scripture, and because they were able to take advantage of the ‘new’ exegetical tools and methods of Renaissance humanism, early Protestant reception of Trinitarian dogma occasioned a new era of Trinitarian biblical interpretation which, in turn, influenced the exposition and defence of the Trinity in early Protestant dogmatics and catechesis. The present essay will attempt to demonstrate this claim in four sections: first, we will consider briefly the relationship between the Reformers and ecumenical Trinitarian orthodoxy (section 1); then, we will survey the shape of early Protestant Trinitarian thought as it is expressed in exegesis (section 2), dogmatics (section 3), and catechesis (section 4).

(p. 228) The Reformers and the Ecumenical Doctrine of the Trinity

The relationship between the Reformers and ecumenical Trinitarian orthodoxy has been a subject of debate since the sixteenth century. As early as 1537, Lausanne pastor Pierre Caroli (c.1480–c.1545) accused Calvin, William Farel (1489–1565), and Pierre Viret (1511–71) of holding heterodox views of the Trinity in his La refutation du blaspheme des Farellistes contre la saincte Trinité (Backus 2003: 179–80; Gordon 2009: 72–7). More recently, John Henry Newman identified Luther and Calvin as the ‘definite anticipation’ of the Socinian heresy (Newman 1968: 198–9). Though Calvin, Farel, and Viret were acquitted of heresy charges by Bernese pastors in December 1537, and though Newman's judgement reflects an unsympathetic reading Luther and Calvin, it must be acknowledged that the Reformers bear some of the blame for the ambiguity surrounding the question of their Trinitarian orthodoxy. Thus, for example, when Caroli demanded that Calvin subscribe to the ancient creeds, the Genevan Reformer displayed ‘a somewhat curious attitude’ (Wendel 1997: 165) and refused to do so. Similarly, both Luther and Bucer exhibited an occasional reticence toward using traditional terminology such as ‘Trinity’, ‘person’, and ‘procession’, suggesting that clarity of expression and the avoidance of ‘godless quarrels’ would be better served by sticking to an exclusively biblical idiom (Muller 2003: 62–5; Kolb 2009: 60). Perhaps the most infamous example of ambiguity vis-à-vis Trinitarian orthodoxy comes from the 1521 edition of Melanchton's Loci communes theologici. Therein, the Wittenberg theologian argued that the doctrine of the Trinity does not belong to ‘the essence of theology’ and therefore that the Christian should seek to know Christ by knowing ‘his benefits’, instead of seeking to comprehend divine mysteries such as the Trinity which are better ‘adored’ than ‘investigated’ (Pauck 1969: 20–2).

The preceding examples present riddles for the interpreter of Reformation thought. Nevertheless they should not be viewed as reflecting doubt on the part of early Protestants regarding the truth, meaning, or importance of historic Trinitarian doctrine. According to Luther, the Trinity was among ‘the sublime articles of the divine majesty’ that were ‘not matters of dispute or contention’ between Catholic and Protestant churches (Tappert 1959: 291–2). In later editions of the Loci communes, Melanchthon identified the ecumenical dogma of the Trinity as ‘the first article of faith’, the object of his sincere and eternal confession (Melanchthon 1982: xlix, 11). For Melanchthon and Calvin alike, God's triunity was that which distinguished the true and living God from idols (Melanchthon 1982: 3–10; Calvin 1960: 122). The Reformers, moreover, were committed to the doctrine's traditional modes of expression and to its propagation in the Protestant churches. Many of the major Protestant confessions produced in the sixteenth century employed traditional Trinitarian terminology and affirmed the early catholic creeds as reliable summaries of biblical teaching. Included in this category are the Augsburg Confession, prepared by Melanchthon for Emperor Charles V in 1530, Luther's Schmalkald Articles (1537), the French Confession (1559), which was largely the product of Calvin's hand, the Belgic Confession (1561), and (p. 229) the Thirty-Nine Articles (1562). Already in his 1536 Christianae religionis institutio, published the year before his conflict with Caroli, Calvin expressed what would become the mature position of the magisterial Reformers regarding technical Trinitarian vocabulary, arguing that such terminology is necessary both to refute heretics and to ‘explain nothing else than what is attested and sealed by Scripture’ (Calvin 1975: 62–6; cf. Muller 2003: 64–6). And in later controversies with anti-Trinitarians such as Michael Servetus (1511–53) and Giovanni Valentino Gentile (1520–66), Calvin applied the lessons learned in the Caroli affair, taking great pains not only to argue the biblical warrants for Nicene Trinitarianism, but also to demonstrate the orthodoxy of the ante-Nicene Fathers (Backus 2003: 106–13, 180; de Greef 2008: 160–7).

Given the Reformers’ clear commitment to ecumenical Trinitarian orthodoxy, we must look elsewhere for an explanation of the ambivalence they occasionally displayed toward the doctrine's traditional vocabulary and creedal symbols. This ambivalence is best explained by the struggle that early Protestants faced to ground Trinitarian dogma in biblical exegesis (Muller 2003: 17–19, 62, 71) and to communicate that dogma in a manner that remained transparent to the Bible's main subject matter and scope, the economy of salvation realized in Jesus Christ.

The Trinity in Early Protestant Exegesis

The Reformers’ material commitment to the doctrine of the Trinity was shaped by their methodological commitment to derive that doctrine from the sacred Scriptures. The latter commitment is comprehensible only in light of specific medieval antecedents related to the norms of theology, as well as certain Renaissance developments in biblical criticism. With respect to the norms of theology, Heiko Oberman identifies in medieval theology two competing understandings of the relationship between Scripture and tradition that informed later Reformation debates. According to the first understanding, which Oberman labels ‘Tradition I’, there is perfect coinherence between Scripture and tradition: whereas Holy Scripture contains all doctrinal truth, tradition serves to explicate and transmit the truth that is wholly contained in Scripture. According to the second understanding, which Oberman labels ‘Tradition II’, Scripture and tradition represent two distinct sources of doctrinal truth that together comprise the totality of God's revelation (Oberman 2000: 361–412). At the time of the Reformation, Protestants appropriated the first understanding of the Scripture-tradition relation (Helmer 1999: 3, 18; Muller 2003: 21), whereas Tridentine Catholicism appropriated the second. The Reformers were also significantly influenced by the medieval theological trajectory, exemplified in Thomas Aquinas (1225–74) and Nicholas of Lyra (1270–1349), that emphasized the necessity of rooting sacra doctrina in Scripture's literal sense (Preus 1969; Muller 2003: 197). The rhyme, ‘Si Lyra non lyrasset, Lutherus non saltasset (If Lyra had not lyred, Luther would not have danced)’, barely overstates the significance of this trajectory for the theology of the Reformers (Yarchin 2004: 98). It is here that a third influence on the Reformers’ (p. 230) Trinitarian biblical exegesis deserves mention. Though the influence should not be overstated (Rummel 2000; Mattox 2008), the ‘New Learning’ of Renaissance humanism provided early Protestant theologians with a number of tools, including critical editions of the text of the Old and New Testaments and the philological skills required to interpret that text, which served their attempt to ground ecclesial dogma in the literal sense of the Bible. The humanist slogan ad fontes (‘to the sources’) well captured the Protestant desire to pierce through what it considered the cloud of churchly exegetical tradition in order to behold the pure light of the prophetic-apostolic text (Rummel 2009).

The confluence of these factors in Reformation-era exegesis was not without complication however. When the tools of the New Learning were applied to the Bible, the result was often a diminished number of proof-texts for the traditional doctrine of the Trinity. This was true not only in the case of the great Catholic scholar Erasmus (1466–1536) (Meijering 1983: 120–3). It was true in the case of Calvin as well. To be sure, Calvin regarded many of the classical Trinitarian proof-texts as solid bases for the doctrine. Nevertheless, he rejected many others, often concluding that such texts did not refer to God's triune nature but to his saving work pro nobis through Christ the Mediator (Baars 2004: 291–308; Baars 2009: 247–9, 254–5). One example of this tendency is found in Calvin's comments on Heb. 1:3, a text commonly taken by the tradition to indicate the Son's eternal relation to the Father ad intra. According to Calvin, the titles ascribed to Christ in this verse are not intended to teach us ‘of what Christ is in himself’. On the contrary, ‘these high titles … bear a relation to us’; they are ‘given to Christ for our benefit … to build up our faith, so that we may learn that God is made known to us in no other way than in Christ’. While Calvin stresses the evangelical import of this passage and denies that it speaks directly concerning the internal relations of the Father and the Son, he argues nonetheless that the author's use of hypostasis in Heb. 1:3 ‘sufficiently confutes the Arians and Sabellians’, teaching both ‘that the Son is one with God the Father, and that he is yet in a sense distinct from him, so that a subsistence or person belongs to both’ (Calvin 1998, vol. 22: 35–7; cf. Calvin 1998, vol. 21: 149–50). Calvin exhibited an even greater degree of reticence toward finding Trinitarian warrants in the Old Testament, a fact that earned him the title Calvinus iudaizans (‘Calvin the Judaizer’) from Lutheran theologian Aegidius Hunnius (1550–1603) (Puckett 1995; Pak 2010: 103–24). This reticence is especially clear in his commentary on the Psalms, where the Genevan Reformer's primary focus with respect to the doctrine of God is upon God's fatherly mercy, not Christology or pneumatology (Selderhuis 2007: 45–60; Pak 2010: 82–4, 85–6).

Though Erasmus’ exegesis created for him a unique set of problems in relation to Catholic theologians (Rummel 2009: 281, 291–2), a decreased exegetical basis for Trinitarianism did not present the same problem for the Catholic exegete that it did for Protestants. On the one hand, Erasmus did not face the virulent anti-Trinitarian movement that the Reformers faced. On the other hand, because Erasmus was willing to rely upon the authority of the Fathers for his Trinitarian faith, he had less to lose as a result of his exegetical conclusions (but cf. Levering 2008: 36–62). Such a route was not open for Protestant interpreters who sought to establish orthodox Trinitarianism on the basis of Scripture alone (Gerrish 1981: 79–80; Meijering 1983: 121–3).

(p. 231) The difficulty of relating orthodox Protestant exegesis with the new biblical criticism was clearly recognized by Luther. Though he initially appropriated the new exegetical tools with enthusiasm in pursuit of the Reformation cause, Luther eventually acknowledged the mixed nature of their results (Mattox 2008: 22–5). A much neglected aspect of Luther's later theology concerns his work of re-establishing the biblical bases for orthodox Trinitarianism. This work of re-establishment not only involved reassessing traditional Trinitarian proof-texts he had earlier in his career dismissed, now often following the readings of the Fathers and the Medieval Doctors, it also involved articulating a sophisticated theological hermeneutic that could account for the lively interplay between Scripture's diverse two-testament signa and its self-revealing Trinitarian res (Helmer 2002; Mattox 2008). According to Luther, the knowledge of the triune God made manifest in the gospel and confessed in the creed must govern biblical interpretation, including the interpretation of the Old Testament (Luther 1957: 70–4; Mattox 2008). Central to Luther's hermeneutic at this point is the person of the Holy Spirit. According to Luther, the self-same Spirit who overhears the Father's eternal Word in the person of the Son inspired the Old Testament prophets to speak in human languages in order that we too may hear the triune voice:

The Spirit, who knows the inmost depths of God, moves from inner-Trinitarian silence to outer-Trinitarian speech by building a seamless bridge to the speech recorded in the text. The Spirit knows no other speech than Christ's speech, yet the Spirit has no other words than the prophet's words. (Helmer 2002: 64; cf. 51–5, 63–4)

The fact that ‘the Spirit has no other words than the prophet's’ invests the Hebrew text with Trinitarian significance, and this significance gave Luther the opportunity to put his own philological expertise to work. Thus, for example, in his 1543 Treatise on the Last Words of David, essentially a theological exposition of 2 Sam. 23:1–7, Luther takes the Hebrew text's threefold description of the divine speaker in verses 2–3 (‘the Spirit of the Lord’, ‘the God of Israel’, and ‘the Rock of Israel’) as more than a matter of poetic repetition. According to Luther, this threefold description is a revelation of God the triune speaker: ‘Thus all three Persons speak, and yet there is but one Speaker, one Promiser, one Promise, just as there is but one God’ (Luther 1972: 276). Similarly, in his 1532 lectures on Psalm 2, Luther rehabilitates the ancient practice of ‘prosopographic exegesis’ and identifies the shift in speaking subject from ‘the Lord’ in verse 6 to his ‘King’ in verse 7 not simply as a common feature of Hebrew language but as evidence that the Spirit wished to teach us a lesson about the opera Trinitatis ad extra, namely, that ‘God does everything through the Son. For when the Son preaches the Law, the Father Himself, who is in the Son or one with the Son, preaches’ (Luther 1955: 43; cf. Helmer 2002: 61–6, 69 n. 49). Luther draws from this lesson concerning unified Trinitarian action a word of evangelical consolation:

It is useful to learn this, lest we think that the Father is disposed toward us otherwise than we hear from the Son, who surely cannot hate us, since he died for us…. [A]lthough the persons are different (that is, the Father is not the Son nor the Son the Father), nevertheless the will and the Word are the same. (Luther 1955: 51)

(p. 232) Luther's Trinitarian interpretation of the Old Testament was largely continued in post-Reformation Lutheran dogmatics (Preus 1972: 131–8). His approach evoked severe criticism, however, from modern theologians (Bornkamm 1969: 261–6).

The Trinity in Early Protestant Dogmatic Theology

Biblical commentaries, lectures, and treatises did not provide the only outlet for Protestant Trinitarianism in the sixteenth century. The Reformers employed a number of theological genres inherited from the tradition in order to expound and defend the doctrine of the Trinity. Luther, for his part, found in the medieval disputatio an especially suitable format for training his doctoral students for the spiritual conflict (Anfechtung) they would face as they argued with heretics and the devil (Helmer 2003: 133; cf. White 1994; Helmer 1999: 41–120; Bielfeldt 2008). In the doctoral disputations of Erasmus Alberus (1543), Georg Major and Johannes Faber (1544), and Petrus Hegemon (1545), Luther engaged a series of dogmatic topics discussed in medieval theology, including reason's inability to comprehend God's triunity, the relationship between the unity of divine essence and the plurality of divine persons, the nature of theological language, and the question of whether in God it may be said that ‘essence generates essence’ (Hinlicky 2008: 191–209). With respect to the latter question, Luther argued, contrary to Peter Lombard (c.1100–60) and the fourth Lateran Council (1215), that an affirmative answer may be given, provided that the phrase is understood ‘relatively’ and not ‘absolutely’: ‘the essence does not generate or bring into being qua essence but qua person’ (Knuuttila and Saarinen 1999: 9).

Another genre that proved useful to the Reformers’ theological agenda was that of the loci communes. The collection and orderly arrangement of dogmatic topics derived from biblical exegesis provided one of the primary formats whereby early Protestants elaborated their Trinitarian doctrine (Muller 2000; Muller 2003: 397–412). Melanchthon's discussion of the Trinity in the 1555 edition of his Loci communes—the largest locus therein—begins by stating that although the Trinity far transcends ‘the wisdom of all creatures, angels, and men’, God nevertheless designed human beings in such a way that they might truly know his triune nature (Melanchthon 1982: 11). This point later becomes the basis upon which Melanchthon develops a modest analogy for the Son's eternal generation, arguing that just as our thoughts are an ‘image’ of the things we contemplate, so the Son is generated as the essential image of the Father's self-contemplation (Melanchthon 1982: 13–14). As the discussion proceeds, he defines and distinguishes Trinitarian persons, affirming both the Son's eternal generation and the Spirit's procession from the Father and the Son, provides extensive discussion of the biblical bases of Trinitarian doctrine, and presents a series of patristic testimonies in support of his argument (Melanchthon 1982: 11–28).

(p. 233) The length devoted to the doctrine of the Trinity in the 1555 Loci communes is noteworthy, given its absence in the 1521 edition of the work. Also noteworthy is the extent to which the doctrine is integrated with other dimensions of the German Reformer's overarching theological program. A particularly elegant example of this integration comes when Melanchthon applies his Augustinian understanding of the Trinity's external operations to his Protestant ‘theology of the Word’. According to Melanchthon, while the external works of the Trinity are common to all three persons, each person nevertheless ‘has his own distinctive work’ corresponding to ‘the order of persons’ (Melanchthon 1982: 16; cf. 14–15). Consequently, when it comes to what Melanchthon's Swiss counterpart calls ‘the history of the proceeding of the word of God’ (Bullinger 1849: 49), the Second Person of the Trinity acts as the one through whom the Father ‘pronounced the order of creation and the salvation of men’ and through whom he ‘preserves the office of preaching, through which this person effectively works’ (Melanchthon 1982: 12–13). Melanchthon's concern to affirm both the undivided work of the Trinity ad extra and the ordered action of the persons within that undivided work is echoed in Vermigli's discussion of the incarnation (Muller 2003: 255–7).

Largely influenced by Melanchthon's work, Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion ceased to be a catechetical manual in its 1539 edition and instead took on the form of a loci communes (McKee 1989; Muller 2000: 118–39). This new format provided Calvin with the opportunity to elaborate upon doctrinal topics treated only briefly in his commentaries and to engage at greater length in dogmatic disputation (Muller 2000). The locus on the Trinity underwent significant change and expansion throughout the numerous editions of the Institutes until it reached its final form in 1559. These transformations reflect Calvin's lifelong work as a biblical commentator, his increasing interaction with the Fathers, and his debates with heretics such as Servetus and Gentile (Warfield 1956: 219–24; van Oort 1997: 664–84). In the 1559 Institutes, Calvin begins his discussion of the Trinity with a brief statement regarding ‘God's infinite and spiritual essence’ in order to restrain excess speculation and to remind readers of the accommodated nature of divine revelation. He then identifies triunity as the mark that more precisely distinguishes God from idols, introduces the disputed concept of ‘person’ by way of a few brief comments on Heb. 1:3, defends the legitimacy of using non-biblical terminology in theological discourse, and defines a divine ‘person’ as ‘a “subsistence” in God's essence, which, while related to others, is distinguished by an incommunicable quality’. In the two sections that follow, Calvin traces in sequence the scriptural witness to the deity of the Son and the Spirit. He then proceeds to discuss the unity, distinction, and mutual relationships of the three persons. In this section, the Reformer questions the long-standing practice of drawing analogies ‘from human affairs’ to illumine the distinctions between the persons, preferring instead to distinguish them in accordance with their outward order of operation: from the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit. This section ends with a ‘brief’ and ‘useful’ summary of the doctrine. With his constructive exposition of the doctrine in place, Calvin concludes the locus on the Trinity with an extended polemic against the Trinitarian heresies of the ancient Church and of his own day (Calvin 1960: 120–59; Warfield 1956: 223–4).

(p. 234) Interpreters of Reformation theology often note that early Protestant dogmatics tends to emphasize the Trinity in its external works, particularly the work of redemption, over against the Trinity in itself (Butin 1995; Bayer 2008: 334–45). The Reformers’ emphasis in this regard corresponds to their desire to ground Trinitarian doctrine in biblical teaching, where God's redeeming work is central, and to avoid any speculation that would transgress biblical boundaries. Thus, according to Luther, if we would seek to know God in his infinite majesty without erring and without being ‘crushed’, we must ‘touch and lay hold of the Son of God manifest in the flesh’ (Hinlicky 2008: 197). Similarly, Calvin argues that the experience of the incarnate Son's work in quickening, justifying, and sanctifying the sinner provides ‘more certain and firmer’ proof of his divinity ‘than any idle speculation’ (Calvin 1960: 138). Nevertheless, the Reformers’ emphasis on the opera Trinitatis ad extra does not come at the expense of the Trinitas ad intra. The ‘immanent Trinity’ is a consistent theme of Luther's theology, spanning his exegetical, dogmatic, and catechetical labours (Helmer 1999; Helmer 2003). Even Calvin, who is more reticent to find the Trinity in se within Scripture than much of the exegetical tradition that precedes him, and who in his Institutes commonly distinguishes the divine persons by means of their outward order of operation, consistently affirms the doctrines of the Son's eternal generation and the Spirit's dual procession (Baars 2004: 669–72; Helm 2004: 46–50). For early Protestant dogmaticians, the distinction between the Trinity ad intra and the Trinity ad extra does not mark out the dividing line between biblical revelation and unwarranted speculation, as it does for many theologians operating on the presuppositions of modern German idealism (Gerrish 1981: 77–80; Helmer 1999: 15–25; Helmer 2003: 129–31; Helm 2004: 11–50). For early Protestant dogmaticians, the doctrine of the immanent Trinity is a deliverance of biblical revelation, something God wants us to know (Helmer 1999: 18 n. 66; Mattox 2008: 36). Indeed, in Luther's judgement, it is the revelation of the triune God as he is in himself that ultimately illumines the meaning of his outward actions towards his creatures (Helmer 1999: 190, 211–15). The contrast at this point between Luther and much contemporary Trinitarian theology could not be sharper.

Luther's 1538 work, The Three Symbols or Creeds of the Christian Faith, well illustrates the Reformer's understanding of the Trinity in its internal relations and outward operations (Luther 1960: 201–29). Following ‘the theologians’, Luther identifies two ways in which the Scriptures differentiate the divine persons. The first way concerns the Son's ‘immanent birth’ and the Spirit's ‘immanent procession’. These occur ‘within the Godhead’ and preserve God's ‘one single, undivided, and unseparated substance’. According to Luther, the doctrine of God's immanent processions ‘is not even comprehensible to the angels’, and ‘those who have tried to grasp it have broken their necks over it’; nevertheless, he insists, it is a doctrine ‘given to us in the gospel’ and glimpsed ‘by faith’. The second way the Scriptures differentiate the divine persons is by means of the Son's ‘physical birth’ of his mother and the Spirit's ‘physical procession’ in the form of a dove at Jesus’ baptism and in the fiery tongues at Pentecost. These occur ‘outside of the Godhead, in the creatures’. According to Luther, each person's outward appearance is ‘an external likeness or image of his internal essence’. The reason, moreover, that the Son and the Spirit ‘have and keep the very same terms of differentiation when they reveal themselves (p. 235) to us’ is due to the fact that it is ‘the same Son of God in both births’ and ‘the same Holy Spirit in both kinds of proceeding’ (Luther 1960: 216–18; cf. Emery 2007: 338–412).

As noted above, Calvin commonly distinguished the divine persons on the basis of their external operations. But, as also noted, he did not fail to distinguish the divine persons on the basis of their internal operations. With the topic of the Trinity's internal operations, we meet one of Calvin's most controversial and misunderstood theologoumena, his view regarding the Son's status as ‘God of himself’. Calvin criticized Nicaea's formulation that the Son is ‘God of God’. According to the Reformer, preserving the full deity of the Son requires us to confess that he is autotheos, God of himself (Warfield 1956: 230–50; Muller 2003: 324–6). Some interpreters have seen in this teaching a radical corrective to Nicene Trinitarianism and consider it to be Calvin's distinctive contribution to Trinitarian doctrine (Warfield 1956: 251, 257, 273; Reymond 1997: 324–41; but cf. Reymond 2001: 323–42). This understanding of the Reformer probably overstates the significance of his teaching on this point. Calvin's criticism of Nicaea concerns the form, not the substance, of the Creed and does not entail a rejection of the doctrine of eternal generation (Warfield 1956: 249; Baars 2004: 705). Moreover, this understanding of Calvin fails to appreciate both the nature of pro-Nicene Trinitarianism, which is thoroughly anti-subordinationist (Ayres 2004: 21, 362–3), and the fact that Calvin's view stands in continuity with certain medieval developments in Trinitarian thought, which also sought to account for the ingenerate nature of the Son's divine essence (Wendel 1997: 167 n. 54; Muller 2003: 35–7, 54, 87, 326; cf. Marshall 2004). For Calvin, the fact that the Son is ‘God of himself’ reflects a truth about his consubstantial divine essence, where all divine attributes—including divine a-seity—are one; whereas the fact that he is ‘begotten of the Father’ reflects a truth about his unique divine personhood (Calvin 1960: 143–4, 153–4). Calvin's Trinitarian ‘development’ at this point thus represents an exercise in classical Nicene Trinitarianism, intended to preserve the Son's consubstantial deity without denying his personal distinction. Regardless of this fact, Calvin's doctrine continued to be a cause of controversy, not only among Reformed theologians, but also between Reformed, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic theologians into the eighteenth century (Warfield 1956: 252–84; Muller 2003: 326–32).

The Trinity in Early Protestant Catechesis

For the Protestant Reformers, the doctrine of the Trinity was not merely a topic for classroom disputations and dogmatic handbooks (Helmer 2003: 143). It was a doctrine that was to be taught in the Church and transmitted to all the faithful, including children. Writing to the Duke of Somerset in 1548, Calvin explained the need for catechesis: ‘the Church of God will never preserve itself without a Catechism, for it is like the seed to keep the good grain from dying out, and causing it to multiply from age to age’ (Calvin 1983: 191; cf. Tappert 1959: 358–62). The Reformers’ catechetical labours resulted in the production of catechisms, sermons, and commentaries, commonly structured around the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer. Many of the themes already surveyed appear in these works.

As in the case of their exegetical and dogmatic counterparts, Protestant catechetical literature regularly employs traditional Trinitarian vocabulary, even as it seeks to expound the sense of this vocabulary by means of the Scriptures. Thus, in his sermons on the Apostles’ Creed, Bullinger commends ‘the holy fathers’ for confessing ‘that the Son is of the same substance with the Father’, and then confirms this confession by commenting on what he regards as ‘most evident testimonies of the natural Godhead of Christ’ in John 5 (Bullinger 1849: 128). Early Protestant catechetical texts also regularly distinguish the Trinitarian persons ad intra from their works ad extra: ‘We should … distinguish between the Spirit and the works he does or the gifts he gives’, Vermigli insists in his 1544 commentary on the Apostles’ Creed (Vermigli 1999: 31). Yet it is not only the distinction but also the relationship between the persons and their works that reveals the rich Trinitarian piety of Reformation era catechesis. In response to the question concerning why we call God ‘Father’, Vermigli provides two reasons: ‘first, because he is the Father of Jesus Christ our Lord, the second person of the Godhead; the other reason is that it has pleased him to be called our Father, since he shares with us both likeness and inheritance’ (Vermigli 1999: 8–9; cf. Bullinger 1849: 125; Schaff 1996: 315–16). In a similar fashion, Calvin's 1538 catechism distinguishes the Son of God from those who are sons ‘merely by adoption and grace’, and then goes on to relate Christ's Sonship to ours, stating that ‘he put on our flesh in order that having become Son of Man he might make us sons of God with him’ (Hesselink 1997: 23). According to Luther, in the three articles of the Creed, ‘God himself has revealed and opened to us the most profound depths of his fatherly heart, his sheer, unutterable love…. Moreover, having bestowed upon us everything in heaven and on earth, he has given us his Son and his Holy Spirit, through whom he brings us to himself’. In other words, the triune God ‘gives himself completely to us’ (Tappert 1959: 419–20; cf. Schaff 1996: 314).

Suggested Reading

The following are recommended: Baars (2004); Helmer (1999); Muller (2003).


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      —— (2009), ‘The Trinity’, in H. J. Selderhuis (ed.) The Calvin Handbook (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 245–57.Find this resource:

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          Bayer, O. (2008), Martin Luther's Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).Find this resource:

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                        —— (1975), Institution of the Christian Religion (Atlanta: John Knox).Find this resource:

                          —— (1983), Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, vol. 5 (Grand Rapids: Baker).Find this resource:

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