The Institutes (20)

Book 1 Chapter 13 Sections 1-6

How do we know the Trinity exists? In a recent conversation, a few friends and I discussed how such a critical doctrine was not so obvious to the early church. That, combined with some recent interactions with a man who has Unitarian beliefs, has led me to reexamine many of the key texts from the Scriptures, especially concerning the Person and deity of the Holy Spirit. Coincidentally, this is the same thing Calvin addresses in another long chapter. This will likely take the week to get through.

As I studied the Scriptures, I was struck by how the apostles went out of their way to ensure that we understood that Christ and the Spirit were also God… the same God as the Father. The Spirit is alternately called Christ’s Spirit or Yahweh’s Spirit.

Calvin, of course, is all about the Trinity. As he begins to explore God’s character, he doesn’t present a list of attributes like most modern systematic theologies will. Instead, he’s concerned about exploring the Trinity in a deeply pastoral way, addressing objections along the way.

Romans 1 gives us the benchmark for what is perceivable about God: He’s infinite and spiritual. Whereas Calvin does not connect these two attributes to Romans 1, the connection seems more or less clear in my mind.

Beyond the clear character of God displayed in nature, the first thing to note about His nature is that He is one God in three Persons. Calvin addresses several semantic issues, including the difference between hypostases, person, and subsistance (there is no practical difference in Calvin’s mind), and the fact that all three Persons share the same essence. Many will decry the use of non-Biblical terms to describe God, but Calvin points out that this is not at all impermissible.

… we ought to seek from Scripture a sure rule for both thinking and speaking, to which both the thoughts of our minds and the words of our mouths should be conformed. But what prevents us from explaining in clearer words those matters in Scripture which perplex and hinder our understanding, yet which conscientiously and faithfully serve the truth of Scripture itself, and are made use of sparingly and modestly and on due occasion?

When a truth is Scripture is found, such as the clear teaching that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and all God, it is not wrong to assign a word or draw a principle from that truth and label it as such. That’s systematic theology at its essence: looking at all of Scripture and pulling out truth about a particular topic. In this case, God is clearly found in three Persons.

The other benefit of systematic theology is the weeding out of false teachers from the People of God. It’s worth noting that the modern Baptist cry of “no creed but the Bible” was also the cry of the liberalism that infiltrated the denominations in the early part of the last century. Unless we properly interpret and lay out that interpretation for others to see, we’re playing theological trickery, because “no creed but the Bible” means 20,000 different things to 20,000 different people. Orthodoxy must be laid out, and in understanding the Bible systematically we have a tool to show where orthodoxy cannot be compromised.

But what about those who disagree with using extra-biblical terms to describe what is in the Bible? Calvin, having thus far argued strongly for systematic theology, takes to heart the dissenting opinion of his brothers.

[This] modesty of saintly men ought to warn us against forthwith so severely taking to task, like censors, those who do not wish to swear to the words conceived by us, provided they are not doing it out of either arrogance or frowardness or malicious craft. But let these very persons, in turn, weigh the necessity that compels us to speak thus, that gradually theymay at length become accustomed to a useful manner of speaking.

Calvin gives two examples:

Arius says that Christ is God, but mutters that he was made and had a beginning. He says that Christ is one with the Father, but secretly whispers in the ears of his own partisans that He is united to the Father like other believers, although by a singular privilege. Say “consubstantial” and you will tear off the mask of this turncoat, and yet you add nothing to Scripture.

Sabellius says that Father, Son, and Spirit signify no distinctions in God. Say they are three, and he will scream that you are naming three Gods. Say that in the one essence of God there is a trinity of persons; you will say in one word what Scripture states, and cut short empty talkativeness.

Speaking systematically about the Scriptures is essential when we’re dealing with heresy, and I would say when we’re teaching the Scriptures. It helps no one to study the Scriptures that are easily interpreted and not held up to other Scriptures. Instead, we should do the hard work of studying through the Scriptures to show people God the Father, Son, and Spirit… the Triune God. This doctrine, and so many others, rely upon the whole counsel of God. We should not shy away from it.

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