Friday, October 30, 2015

John Calvin on the Trinity: "an epoch in the history of the doctrine of the Trinity" ??? - part two

In my last thread, I provided quotes from five Reformed theologians who affirmed (to one degree or another) that Calvin's elucidations on the doctrine of Trinity marked, "an epoch in the history of the doctrine of the Trinity" (link). In this post, I provide two Reformed contributions which present a substantially different view, a view that basically conforms to the notion that Calvin's take on the Trinity, "carefully avoided anything that could have been considered an innovation". Those who adopt this view, have a difficult task before them, and I say this for three important reasons: first, from a strictly historical perspective, the extant evidence presents considerable opposition to such a view. Brannon Ellis has provided an excellent summary of the early historical responses to Calvin's reflections:

In the years after Calvin's death his autothean stance garnered sustained criticism, not only from antitrinitarians, but from the great majority of quite orthodox fellow trinitarians as well. Controversy over his views spread to include Roman Catholics from the 1560s and Lutherans from the 1590s. After the turn of the seventeenth century, Arminius and his Remonstrant successors joined the general opposition to this language...Each of these trajectories rejected Calvin's advocacy of the aseity of the Son, remaining in polemic with the Reformed who universally took it up. (Calvin, Classical Trinitarianism, and the Aseity of the Son, p. 3.)

Second, even though the early Reformed camp, "universally" embraced Calvin's teaching on, "the aseity of the Son", they were divided into two opposing positions concerning the doctrine of eternal generation, with one of the two clearly being a novel development—i.e. those who taught that that God the Father did not communicate the divine essence to the Son via eternal generation.

Third, Warfield's exhaustive treatment on Calvin's doctrine of the Trinity presents substantial evidence that his read on Calvin's thought is the correct one—that Calvin added something important to the historical development of the doctrine of the Trinity—and that it, constituted "an epoch in the history of the doctrine of the Trinity." (It is important to keep in mind that it is a separate issue whether or not this "epoch" was a positive or negative development.)

Adherents of the position that Calvin's take on the doctrine of the Trinity did not entail any real innovation/s, begin with the presupposition that those who oppose their view have grossly misunderstood what Calvin himself taught. This is the only recourse they have when the early historical opposition to Calvin's position is brought into play; they maintain that the Catholic, Lutheran and Remonstrant Trinitarians had incorrectly read Calvin—i.e. they all got it wrong.

This supposed incorrect reading of Calvin apparently has also been a major problem among "several" Reformed folk, for one fairly recent (2012) proponent of non-innovation view, has published an online critique of three "modern" Reformed theologians (Robert Reymond, Gerald Bray and Roger Beckwith) who:

...have claimed that the Calvinistic or Reformed doctrine of the Trinity represents a distinctive break with, and perhaps an advancement of, the Nicene tradition. They assert that Calvin’s attribution of the term autotheos to the eternal Son, as well as his statements about the “unbegotten” essence of God, represent a correction to implicit subordinationism within the long-standing tradition. (Steven Wedgeworth, "Is There a Calvinist Doctrine of the Trinity?" - LINK.)

Wedgeworth continues with:

In this paper, we will investigate how these claims arise in the history of Reformed theology and respond by examining the context in which Calvin made his (now) controversial statements. We will argue that the recent thinkers who suggest that there is a distinctively Calvinistic doctrine of the trinity have misunderstood Calvin’s context, and thus wrongly assumed his theology to be creative on this point. We will thus contend that rather than creating a new theological construction, Calvin was instead working within an old Western tradition.

Later in the paper, Wedgeworth attempts to defend the views that not only was Calvin, "working within an old Western tradition", but also that Calvin's position was virtually identical to that of Peter Lombard and the 4th Lateran Council !!!

Though Wedgeworth's paper is certainly interesting, and worth reading, I believe that a number of his conclusions are problematic. (In part 3 of this ongoing series I will provide some reasons why I believe this to be so.)

Another online paper delves into the division between Reformed folk who believe that Calvin maintained a non-innovative, historical view of eternal generation and those who adamantly deny this—i.e. Calvin introduced a novel concept which advanced/corrected the historical understanding of eternal generation. Benjamin W. Swinburnson, sets the tone for his extensive essay with the following:

A central issue that arose from these 16th century polemics was the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son of God. What precisely were Calvin’s views on the subject? Did it represent a distinctive break with Patristic and Medieval orthodoxy? If so, what is the precise nature of Calvin’s distinctiveness?

Different answers have been given to these questions over the past four hundred years. Broadly speaking, two schools of interpretation have emerged. One school views Calvin’s teaching on eternal generation as being in substan­tial continuity with his Patristic and Medieval predecessors and Reformation successors, while the other tends to view him as making some kind of distinc­tive break with past interpretations of the doctrine—a break (it is argued) that was not always consistently implemented by his successors. Both schools of thought tend to agree that Calvin embraced a form of the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son, but they disagree as to how he defined it. Specifically, the main area of dispute concerns Calvin’s acceptance or rejection of the idea of communication of essence in eternal generation. ("John Calvin, Eternal Generation, and Communication of Essence: A Reexamination of His Views" - HTML version here; PDF here.)

Swinburnson endorses and defends the view that Calvin taught, "the idea of communication of essence in eternal generation", and maintains that Calvin's doctrine of the Trinity did not introduce any novel concepts. (Warfield embraced the opposite view, and I lean towards his assessment, but I remain somewhat open to the possibility Calvin had no explicit position on this issue.)

I shall conclude this post with a suggestion to those who are interested in this topic that they read both of the online papers I linked to above, as well as Warfield's substantive essay, which was linked to in the previous thread.

Part 3 coming soon...

Grace and peace,



Don Dorito said...

Eagerly awaiting part iii.

David Waltz said...

Hi Don,

Thanks much for the interest in this series. Part 3 should be up by Wednesday (the Lord willing).

Grace and peace,