Book I Chapter 13 Section 1-13
Calvin now addresses the knowledge of God as He reveals Himself in three Persons. He starts by pointing out that although some have objected to the use of the word “person” to describe God, Calvin argues that it is an important term and that it, along with the word “trinity”, are invaluable to aid our understanding of God and defend against heresies (these will be addressed in more detail in Section 21-29 of this chapter).
Interestingly, Calvin confesses he would happily drop all such terms “provided all would concur in the belief that the Father, Son and Spirit, are one God, and yet that the Son is not the Father, nor the Spirit the Son, but that each has his peculiar subsistence” (persona). Unfortunately history shows that the early church was assailed with all manner of hereies about the Trinity. Calvin mentions two characters for illustration – Arius and Sabellius.
Arius taught that although Christ was God, He had been created and had a beginning like other creatures. In response the truth was declared that Christ is the eternal Son of the Father and is “consubstantial with the Father” i.e. of the same substance. By contrast Sabellius recognised the triune Godhead, but merged the Father, Son and Spirit together so their was no distinction between them. In reply the church fathers declared that a “Trinity of Persons subsisted in the one God”.
In order to convince his readers of the truth of the Trinity, Calvin moves on to demonstrate the divinity of the Son of God. Calvin does this by firstly highlighting the role of the Son in the creation and sustaining of the world. He then moves onto a number of passages where Jesus expressly takes Old Testament references to Jehovah and applies them to Himself.
I love how Calvin uses his powers of reasoning in this chapter to expose the falsehood of the Arians and Sabellians. In Section 5 he runs through a mock conversation with them and has them openly confessing the official line on the one hand, but then muttering a whispered caveat to their followers. It’s a great technique to engage his readers and drive the point home of how they deviate from the truth.
It reminds me that heresy is not a word that we hear often these days, but it is still around. And its nature has not changed – it is still half full of orthodox doctrines (so that some would be convinced), but half full of error (so that the convinced are led astray). We still need technical terms that can provide clarity to our creed that can be used to defend against attack. Even if we can never ultimately fully understand or define something as mysterious and wonderful as the Trinity, often the critical thing is to define what it is not so that errors and hereies can be clearly ruled out.
“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being, sustaining all things by His powerful word.” Hebrews 1.3
Father, thank you for those early believers who fought for a correct understanding of who you are. We confess our finite minds cannot fathom the mystery of the “Trinity of persons in one Divine essence”, but we praise you Father, Son and Spirit for your external existence and redeeming work. Amen.