The Institutes (23)

Book 1 Chapter 13 Sections 16-20

Slowing down the last few weeks as I’ve gone through the Institutes: been reading through book two, working, and spending time ministering at my church. Hopefully I’ll get to posting once a day again, or at least once every other day.

In chapter thirteen, Calvin is systematically presenting the Trinity as a foundational doctrine to Christianity. One cannot take Jesus Christ to be mere man and still claim His name for themselves. Calvin has taken time to show that the Son and the Spirit are indeed Yahweh in the Scriptures… now he begins to show that there is a unity in their distinction. He wisely cautions:

… Scripture sets forth a distinction of the Father from the Word, and of the Word from the Spirit. Yet the greatness of the mystery warns us how much reverence and sobriety we ought to use in investigating this.

He goes on to quote Gregory of Nazianzus:

I cannot think on the one without quickly being encircled by the splendor of the three; nor can I discern the three without being straightway carried back to the one.

Of all Scriptural mysteries, the Trinity is probably the most impenetrable by our human minds. In the Old Testament, the shema carries so much weight: “hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one.” And yet, Christianity doesn’t abrogate or change anything about the shema. It only clarifies the nature and character of Yahweh as He reveals Himself through the Son and the Spirit. So… if God is One, where do the Son and Spirit come from?

Christian doctrine has attempted to come to grips with the reality of the Trinity over the last 2000 years. The Christian doctrines that deal with this “origin” of the Son and the Spirit are called the eternal generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit. What is meant by these? Essentially, both of these doctrines attempt to show that in eternity all three Persons of the Trinity existed. As we can tell, the revelation of the Son and of the Spirit did not take place fully until the New Testament, but in no way does this mean that the Father decided to create the Son or the Spirit at that time, or at any other time.

What Scripture reveals is that the Son is the only begotten of the Father, and the Nicene Creed makes clear that He is begotten, not made. The Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, and yet resided in eternity with them. Confused yet? Hopefully so: the Trinity is one of the most mysterious aspects of God, and yet the Scriptures bear testimony to it, as has previously been seen.

Calvin attempts to harmonize all the Scriptural statements concerning the nature of the Son and the Spirit. His conclusion regarding their nature is classic Calvin:

… this distinction is so far from contravening the utterly simple unity of God as to permit us to prove from it that the Son in one God with the Father because he shares with the Father one and the same Spirit; and that the Spirit is not something other than the Father and different from the Son, because he is the Spirit of the Father and the Son.

For instance, some of the proof Calvin turns to is found in John 14-15, where the Spirit is distinct from the Father and the Son. Jesus declares that there is “another” who is coming after His departure, one that proceeded from the Father. Thus, the Spirit mentioned was neither the Father nor the Son, but distinct and proceeding from them from them. How does this procession work out in Scripture?

[T]o the Father is attributed the beginning of activity, and the fountain and wellspring of all things; to the Son, wisdom, counsel, and the ordered disposition of all things; but to the Spirit is assigned the power and efficacy of that activity.

This quote seems to show the overarching position that each of the three holds. As concerns our salvation and election, nothing seems better than Peter in 1 Peter 1:2. Concerning our election, he writes:

… according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood.

The Father is the source of our salvation in eternity past, the Spirit is the means in the present via sanctification, and the Christ is both the object of our faith in the future and the means by which we are sealed into the New Covenant. All three are active in our salvation. For me, this three-fold description of the Christian faith is more than enough to consider the Trinity to be a reality. God is the only one that brings salvation, and each of these three are labeled God throughout the Scriptures.

The only way to hold these in tension is to admit that Scripture teaches all three are deity, and yet there is an utter an absolute unity between the three. This is the Scriptural mystery of the Trinity.


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