John Calvin on the Trinity

“…let us remember that the human mind enters a labyrinth whenever it indulges its curiosity, and thus submit to be guided by the divine oracles, how much soever the mystery may be beyond our reach” (John Calvin, Institutes Bk 1, chap. 3, 21).

This document consists of an excerpt from Calvin’s Institutes, Chapter 3, Points 2 and 3.  In it he refutes the claim of heretics that because certain words used in reference to the Trinity are not found in Scripture, the doctrine is therefore unbiblical and a human invention. He shows how these words were necessitated and used by the Fathers to precisely define aspects of the Trinity in order to leave no room for the obfuscation and deception of the heretics who denied the biblical doctrine of the Trinity and replaced it with ideas of their own corrupt minds, while giving the impression they believed in the biblical doctrine.

The Unity of the Divine Essence in Three Persons Taught, in Scripture, from the Foundation of the World

2 – But there is another special mark by which he designates himself, for the purpose of giving a more intimate knowledge of his nature.  While he proclaims his unity, he distinctly sets it before us as existing in three persons.  These we must hold, unless the bare and empty name of Deity merely is to flutter in our brain without any genuine knowledge.  Moreover, lest any one should dream of a threefold God, or think that the simple essence is divided by the three persons, we must here seek a brief and easy definition which may effectually guard us from error.  But as some strongly inveigh against the term person as being merely of human invention, let us first consider how far they have any ground for doing so.  When the apostle calls the Son of God “the express image of his person” (Heb 1:3), he undoubtedly does assign to the Father some subsistence in which he differs from the Son.  For to hold with some interpreters that the term is equivalent to essence (as if Christ represented the substance of the Father like the impression of a seal upon wax), were not only harsh but absurd.  For the essence of God being simple and undivided, and contained in himself entire, in full perfection, without partition or diminution, it is improper, no, ridiculous, to call it his express image (Gk: character).  But because the Father, though distinguished by his own peculiar properties, has expressed himself wholly in the Son, he is said with perfect reason to have rendered his person (Gk: hypostasis) manifest in him.  And this aptly accords with what is immediately added, i.e. that he is “the brightness of his glory”.  The fair inference from the apostle’s words is, that there is a proper subsistence (hypostasis) of the Father, which shines refulgent in the Son.  From this, again, it is easy to infer that there is a subsistence (hypostasis) of the Son which distinguishes him from the Father.  The same holds in the case of the Holy Spirit; for we immediately prove both that he is God, and that he has a separate subsistence from the Father.  This, moreover, is not a distinction of essence, which it were impious to multiply.  If credit, then is given to the apostle’s testimony, it follows that there are three persons (hypostases) in God.  The Latins having used the word Persona to express the same thing as the Greek (hypostasis), it betrays excessive fastidiousness and even perverseness to quarrel with the term.  The most literal translation would be subsistence. Many have used substance in the same sense.  Nor, indeed, was the use of the term person confined to the Latin church.  For the Greek church in like manner, perhaps, for the purpose of testifying their consent, have taught that there are three prosopa (aspects) in God.  All these, however, whether Greeks or Latins, though differing as to the word, are perfectly agreed in substance.

3 – Now, then, though heretics may snarl and the excessively fastidious carp at the word person as inadmissible, in consequence of its human origin, since they cannot displace us from our position that three are named, each of whom is perfect God, and yet that there is no plurality of gods, it is most uncandid to attack the terms which do nothing more than explain what the Scriptures declare and sanction.  “It were better”, they say, “to confine not only our meanings but our words within the bounds of Scripture, and not scatter about foreign terms to become the future seed-beds of brawls and dissensions.  In this way, men grow tired of quarrels about words; the truth is lost in altercation, and charity melts away amid hateful strife”.  If they call it a foreign term, because it cannot be pointed out in Scripture in so many syllables, they certainly impose an unjust law – a law which would condemn every interpretation of Scripture that is not composed of other words of Scripture.  But if by foreign they mean that which, after being idly devised, is superstitiously defended – which tends more to strife than edification – which is used out of place, or with no benefit which offends pious ears by its harshness, and leads them away from the simplicity of God’s word, I embrace their soberness with all my heart.  For I think we are bound to speak of God as reverently as we are bound to think of him.  As our own thoughts respecting him are foolish, so our own language respecting him is absurd.  Still, however, some medium must be observed.  The unerring standard both of thinking and speaking must be derived from the Scriptures: by it all the thoughts of our minds, and the words of our mouths, should be tested.  But in regard to those parts of Scripture which, to our capacities, are dark and intricate, what forbids us to explain them in clearer terms – terms, however, kept in reverent and faithful subordination to Scripture truth, used sparingly and modestly, and not without occasion?  Of this we are not without many examples.  When it has been proved that the church was impelled, by the strongest necessity, to use the words Trinity and person, will not he who still inveighs against novelty of terms be deservedly suspected of taking offense at the light of truth, and of having no other ground for his invective, than that the truth is made plain and transparent?

4 – Such novelty (if novelty it should be called) becomes most requisite, when the truth is to be maintained against calumniators who evade it by quibbling.  Of this, we of the present day have too much experience of being called upon to attack the enemies of pure and sound doctrine.  These slippery snakes escape by their swift and tortuous windings, if not strenuously pursued, and when caught, firmly held.  Thus the early Christians, when harassed with the disputes which heresies produced, were forced to declare their sentiments in terms most scrupulously exact in order that no indirect subterfuges might remain to ungodly men, to whom ambiguity of expression was a kind of hiding-place.  Arius confessed that Christ was God, and the Son of God; because the passages of Scripture to this effect were too clear to be resisted, and then, as if he had done well, pretended to concur with others.  But meanwhile, he ceased not to give out that Christ was created, and had a beginning like others.  To drag this man of wiles out of his lurking-places, the ancient church took a further step and declared that Christ is the eternal Son of the Father, and consubstantial with the Father.  The impiety was fully disclosed when the Arians began to declare their hatred and utter detestation of the term (homoousios).  Had their first confession, i.e. that Christ was God, been sincere and from the heart, they would not have denied that Christ is consubstantial with the Father.  Who dare charge those ancient writers as men of strife and contention, for having debated so warmly, and disturbed the quiet of the church for a single word?  That little word distinguished Christians of pure faith and the blasphemous Arians.  Next Sabellius arose, who counted the names of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as almost nonentities; maintaining that they were not used to mark  kind.  When the matter was debated, he acknowledged his belief that the Father was God, the Son God, the Spirit God; but then he had the evasion ready, that he had said nothing more than if he had called God powerful and just and wise.  Accordingly, he sang another note, i.e. that the Father was the Son, and the Holy Spirit the Father, without order or distinction.  The worthy doctors who then had the interests of piety at heart, in order to defeat this man’s dishonesty, proclaimed that three subsistences were to be truly acknowledged in the one God.  That they might protect themselves against tortuous craftiness by the simple open truth, they affirmed that a Trinity of persons subsisted in the one God, or (which is the same thing) in the unity of God.

5 – Where names have not been invented rashly, we must beware lest we become chargeable with arrogance and rashness in rejecting them.  I wish, indeed, that such names were buried, provided all would concur in the belief that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God, and yet that the Son is not the Father, nor the Spirit the Son, but each has his peculiar subsistence.  I am not so immensely precise as to fight furiously for mere words.  For I observe that the writers of the ancient church, while they uniformly spoke with great reverence on these matters, neither agreed with each other, nor were always consistent with themselves.  How strange the formula used by councils, and defended by Hilary!  How extravagant the view which Augustine sometimes takes!  How unlike the Greeks are to the Latins!  But let one example of variance suffice.  The Latins, in translating (homoousios), used consubstantialis (consubstantial), intimating that there was one substance of the Father and the Son, and thus using the word substance for essence.  Hence Jerome, in his “Letter to Damascus”, says it is profane to affirm that there are three substances in God.  But in Hilary you will find it said more than a hundred times that there are three substances in God.  The how greatly is Jerome perplexed with the word hypostasis!  He suspects some lurking poison, when it is said that there are three hypostases in God.  And he does not disguise his belief that the expression, though used in a pious sense, is improper; if indeed, he was sincere in saying this, and did not rather designedly endeavour, by an unfounded calumny, to throw odium on the Eastern bishops whom he hated.  He certainly shows little candour in asserting, that in all heathen schools ousia is equivalent to hypostasis – an assertion completely refuted by trite and common use.

More courtesy and moderation is shown by Augustine (De Trinitat. lib. 5c. 8 and 9), who, although he says that hypostasis in this sense is new to Latin ears, is still so far from objecting to the ordinary use of the term by the Greeks, that he is even tolerant of the Latins, who had imitated the Greek phraseology.  The purport of what Socrates says of the term, in the Sixth Book pf the Tripartite History, is, that it had been improperly applied to this purpose by the unskilful.  Hilary (De Trinitat. lib. 2) charges it upon the heretics as a great crime, that their misconduct had rendered it necessary to subject to the peril of human utterance things which ought to have been reverently confined within the mind, not disguising his opinion that those who do so, do what is unlawful, speak what is ineffable, and pry into what is forbidden.  Shortly after, he apologises at great length for presuming to introduce new terms.  For, after putting down the natural names of Father, Son, and Spirit, he adds, that all further inquiry transcends the significance of words, the discernment of sense, and the apprehension of intellect.  And in another place (De Conciliis), he congratulated the bishops of France in not having framed any other confession, but received, without alteration, the ancient and most simple confession received by all churches from the days of the apostles.  Not unlike this is the apology of Augustine, that the term had been wrung from him by necessity from the poverty of human language in so high a matter: not that the reality could be thereby expressed, but that he might not pass on in silence without attempting to show how the Father, Son, and Spirit are three.

The modesty of these holy men should be an admonition to us not instantly to dip our pen in gall, and sternly denounce those who may be unwilling to swear to the terms which we have devised, provided they do not in this betray pride, or petulance, or unbecoming heat, but are willing to ponder the necessity which compels us so to speak, and may thus become gradually accustomed to a useful form of expression.  Let men also studiously beware, that in opposing the Arians on the one hand, and the Sabellians on the other, and eagerly endeavouring to deprive both of any handle for cavil, they do not bring themselves under some suspicion of being the disciples of either Arius or Sabellius.  Arius says that Christ is God, and then mutters that he was made and had a beginning.  He says, that he is one with the Father, but secretly whispers in the ears of his party, made one, like other believers, though with special privilege.  Say, He is consubstantial, and you immediately pluck the mask from this chameleon, though you add nothing to Scripture.  Sabellius says that the Father, Son, and Spirt indicate some distinctions in God.  Say, They are three, and he will bawl out that you are making three Gods.  Say, that there is a Trinity of persons in one divine essence, you will only express in one word what the Scriptures say, and stop this empty prattle.  Should any be so superstitiously precise as not to tolerate these terms, still do their worst, they will not be able to deny that when one is spoken of, a unity of substance must be understood, and when three in one essence, the persons in this Trinity are denoted.  When this is expressed with equivocations we dwell not on words.  But I was long ago made aware, and, indeed, on more than one occasion, that those who contend pertinaciously about words are tainted with some hidden poison; and therefore that it is more expedient to provoke them purposely, than to court their favour by speaking obscurely.

6 – But to say nothing more of words, let us now attend to the thing signified.  By person, then, I mean a subsistence in the divine essence – a subsistence which, while related to the other two, is distinguished from them by incommunicable properties.  By subsistence we wish something else to be understood than essence.  For if the Word were God simply and had not some property peculiar to himself, John could not have said correctly that he had always been with God.  When he adds immediately after, that the Word was God, he calls us back to the one essence.  But because he could not be with God without dwelling in the Father, hence arises that subsistence, which, though connected with the essence by an indissoluble tie, being incapable of separation, yet has a special mark by which it is distinguished from it.  Now, I say that each of the three subsistences while related to the others is distinguished by its own properties.  Here relation is distinctly expressed, because, when God is mentioned simply and indefinitely the name belongs not less to the Son and Spirit than to the Father.  But whenever the Father is compared with the Son, the peculiar property of each distinguishes the one from the other.  Again, whatever is proper to each I affirm to be incommunicable, because nothing can apply or be transferred to the Son which is attributed to the Father as a mark of distinction.  I have no objections to adopt the definition of Tertullian, provided it is properly understood, “that there is in God a certain arrangement or economy, which makes no change on the unity of essence.” – Tertullian, Adversus Praxeam.

Excerpt from: “Institutes of the Christian Religion” by John Calvin.  Translated by Henry Beveridge.  Published by Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC, Peabody Massachusetts, 2008, 2017.