Calvin, the Divine Essence, and God the Father

I’ve been slowly re-reading Calvin’s Institutes and came across a section in Book I Chapter 13 on the Trinity that I thought would be fruitful for discussion here. In I.13.24, Calvin aruges that the name “God” in Scripture does not refer to the Father alone. In my mind, what this does, not necessarily for Calvin, but for many of his followers after him, is to de-personalize the name “God” and apply it to the divine essence, so that there is, as it were, a God behind the trinitarian God.

In this section, Calvin is knee deep in polemical argumentation against a sort of Arianism. His worry is that if the Father is only considered “God,” then the Son would, in some sense, be less than God. He doesn’t seem to notice that the Fathers, from what I can tell, are unanimous that the term “God” is used in Scripture of the Father, and that his counter-examples in his polemics simply don’t make his argument. Calvin fluctuates between “God” as a name and “God” as deity, and doesn’t draw a distinction between them. Therefore, he can argue, that when Christ says that no one is good but God alone, then you have to say Christ isn’t God if only the Father is God (thereby reducing name to deity).

Calvin’s major worry comes to the fore at the beginning of the next section which starts by him claiming, “But they are obviously deceived in this connection, for they dream of individuals, each having its own separate part of the essence” (I.13.25). The implications of a failure to distinguish between “God” as name or category, is that “God” becomes “that which is shared among the persons,” or, in other words, it becomes the divine essence. “God” becomes synonymous with deity. Calvin, I should add, navigates these issues well, from what I can gather. But it seems clear that Calvin is only considering the polemical issues rather than the purely exegetical ones. Note his statement, “Finally, if Father and God were synonymous, thus would the Father be the deifier; nothing would be left in the Son but a shadow; and the Trinity would be nothing else but the conjunction of the one God with two created things” (I.13.25).

A problem with this line is the exegetical implications of it. If “God” ceases to be a personal name, and that is read back into Scripture which clearly uses it as such, then suddenly “God” becomes pure deity and it becomes easy to turn God into pure power. It is not a long jump to get to Ames’ Marrow of Divinity and enter into a discussion of God that starts with an extended discussion of the divine essence and power is the central attribute – all before you get to the triune persons.


15 thoughts on “Calvin, the Divine Essence, and God the Father

  1. Sure.

    But by the same fact, if Jesus is not called “God” authoritatively much, if at all, but rather the “son of” – as God himself seemed to say – doesn’t that suggest the whole doctrine of the Trinity, of perfect identity of one part with another, must be false?

    It is probably to try to save the doctrine of the Trinity, that Calvin is making his argument. But to do that, perhaps he does indeed begin to find some kind of larger whole, “behind” – or bigger than? – the three persons.

    The “One”? Or perhaps “the Trinity” itself, is a kind of “larger” term. Very much like the “one.”

    • I was wondering if he did. Calvin clearly navigates it well, but if you ignore his polemics and try to walk the line like he did, you would probably fail. The Fathers, from what I gather, took it for granted that “God” was synonymous with “Father.” Interestingly, in the post-reformation period with the heretical movements finding all the old heresies and reviving them, we see this argument used against “orthodoxy.” The argument goes, in the case of someone like Samuel Clarke, that the Bible and the Fathers clearly understand “God” to be synonymous with “Father,” and therefore you get some kind of Arianism. Clarke, like Calvin, seems to miss the distinction between a name and a category, and so his analysis, while incredibly robust, is flawed. But this is a very real problem that arose out of Calvin’s distinction (and lack thereof).

    • Interesting note on Calvin, esp., Kyle.

      The category mistake is an important note. With Torrance (as with someone like Athanasius where he would take it from), the idea of Father/Son by the Holy Spirit would be the ontological reality; which while true to revelation (and of course something akin anachronistically to Barth’s analogia fidei), is also, then, an important “ontological” reality. Which as you note with Calvin, maybe he fails to fully recognize. I know with Athanasius and TFT the idea is that God is Father/Son[Holy Spirit] prior to becoming Creator, which like the Incarnation is something new for God which flows out of His free love for the other (thus ad extra is univocal with in se — at least soteriologically).

      My chapter for our book is kind of Intro-like, but it hits on this very issue. Of God’s “being” defined by the Father/Son Holy Spirit relation (thus TFT’s “onto-relations”).

      Great thought on Calvin, thanks for sharing it!

  2. In my ebook on comparative mysticism, “the greatest achievement in life,” there are many references to divine essence. These are quoted out of context, in the order on which they appear:

    (10) In the mystical tradition of religions, we can directly experience the divine in this life by giving up our ego and individuality to be in the soul, then consciously sharing in the unitive divine essence.

    (10) Few people are aware that the divine essence is the essence of All. That art Thou, the divine is in you, is a declaration of many scriptures; most mystics believe that essence to be the ultimate, eternal Reality.

    (11) Thou art That: you are in the divine essence; you must be dedicated to fully realizing it.

    (17) Most mystics say that each of us is born with the essence of the divine; sin is our separation from the divine, ignoring or not seeking our soul. Mystics view atonement as accepting at-one-ment; it is reuniting with our soul and the One divine essence in All.

    (18) Mystics expanded to a search for oneness with the divine essence.

    (26) Divine essence is in the stars and planets, as it is in All, yet the stars and planets in any alignment do not make absorption in divine unity any easier nor more difficult.

    (26) Divine essence is universal; we must be aware of it.

    (37) Using Allah, (celestial) Buddha, God, ha-Shem, Ishvara, or other words does not change the divine essence.

    (38) To say that we humans are superior to birds, trees, rivers, or mountains is not to be aware of the divine essence in Nature which always surround us.

    (46) Union with the divine, however, surpasses knower, known and knowing; it is to be at one with the divine essence.

    (56) The divine essence is just outside your door, but when you keep it closed it cannot come in to transform your life.

    (56) It is the divine essence waiting outside your own barriers, present presently in this place at this moment.

    (58) Many of them said that the divine essence is nothing, i.e. no thing, that it is immanent in all things, yet it is transcendent to everything.

    (58) Some mystics equate grace, love and spirit with the divine essence.

    (59) Direct experience in the divine essence also has various names: Devekut, …Dharmakaya, …Fana, …Samadhi, …Unio mystica.

    (59) It is not being where the divine lives, but to be what the divine essence is here and now.

    (60) Perhaps we can reinterpret, and adjust, that formula to help clarify the correlation between divine Essence, matter and consciousness: E = mc f(x).

    (60) The fourth power is suprarational consciousness of mystics, when they intuit the divine essence in perceived matter.

    (60) Divine essence might be felt as spiritual energy, an interpretation acceptable to many religions and mystics.

    (61) Divine essence…emanates and sustains universal matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and cosmic consciousness (cf(x) raised to its greatest power). During suprarational consciousness, and beyond, mystics share in that essence to varying extents.

    (61) Most traditions of mysticism, and most mystics, recommended the inner way: exploring a person’s inner self, or soul, to discover the divine essence inherent in it.

    (61) Intuition plays an important role in the mysticism of all religions; it gives an insight into the divine essence.Looking within, greater consciousness of our own divine essence enables us to realize it in all matter.

    (67) The good feeling of being in the divine essence is only incidental to the conscious union with it.

    (71) Most true mystics feel it is impossible to portray direct awareness in divine essence with words which most people could understand.

    (73) It is not our soul, it is an emanation of infinite, eternal divine essence that permeates all of existence, regardless of how we view the creating process.

    (74) The divine essence, the inner depths shared by all souls, is usually detached from activities of worldly selves, like an audience to a play, but it may sometimes intervene in emergencies or to guide lost egos back onto the path.

    (75) Few of us live through the soul, constantly aware of the divine essence in us.

    (75) When cosmic consciousness, or only yours, is completely aware of universal matter, or that which you can perceive, they transform into One divine essence, or that essence you can be aware of in this life. When that divine essence is manifested, it is partially apparent as matter and consciousness, including you.

    (77) Surface soul is like this self’s reflection in the divine; conscience opens soul’s depths to reflect the divine essence in this self’s life.

    (79) Spiritually, the divine essence does pervade all of existence.

    (82) True mystics feel wholeness often. …it is identifying with the divine essence everywhere.

    (83) The divine essence is Reality, even if you do not believe in God.

    (86) Those thoughts and objects do not vanish; their disparities are insignificant in light of shared divine essence.

    (87) Their prime concern is accepting the flow of divine essence into every aspect of their being.

    (89) Spirituality, intuiting divine essence in all, enhanced their felt awareness.

    (91) You are then conscious that the divine essence flows within, over, beyond, through, and around them.

    (93) The divine essence both pervades and transcends this Universe.

    (95) “Surface soul is a self’s reflection in the divine; conscience opens the soul’s depths to reflect the divine essence in this self’s life.”

    (96) Given their assumption divine essence is within every person, but because it is usually unrealized, dreamless sleep might be necessary for us to reunite with our true self, with the source and spirit of our being.

    (99) The best things in life must be accepted for what they are… Absorption in divine essence, mystical union, is such.

  3. Does this distinction between “name” and “category” really hold up, Biblically?

    Especially when 1) “God” is capitalized in the Bible as proper noun, or even proper name? Implying a singularity.

    And 2) Jesus never seems to call himself “God” at all, in capitals.

    3) Jesus referring to “you are all gods,” at most. Which would not confer special status on Jesus.

    While 4) God himself (surely the primary authority) never refers to Jesus as God; but only “son of,” and then only possibly. (As an anonymous “voice from heaven”).

    5) Looks to me like Calvin himself rightly sensed a genuine problem, with the concept of a Trinity, itself.

    6) Among hundreds of other objections: the Bible never mentioned “Trinity” at all by name.

    • @Brett,

      Just to be clear, because I’m really not sure where you’re coming from ecclesially, I wanted to clarify on a few of your points. I’m really not looking to argue you with you (because I’d win, so why even attempt ;-), but:

      1) The translators capitalized “God” in the Bible (and I don’t know where that takes you anyway).

      2) See my point on the “capitals” above. And the Bible calls Jesus God all over the place Jn 1.1, 5.18, 19.7; Rev 1.8; Col. 1 etc etc. etc.

      3) Not applicable.

      4) See Jn 5.18, 19.7 do a study on “Son of” in a 1st cent. context and see the value that is associated with that (which those passages in Jn underscore).

      5) Calvin was hyper Trinitarian, even known as the Theologian of the Holy Spirit. He may have questioned some of the grammar, but any good theologian will try to engage the Councils constructively.

      6) Refer to my point on “Car” above ;-).


      • @Brett,

        Just to be clear I was kidding about “winning the argument” and such, just trying to have a little fun. I’m not kidding with my little responses to your questions. And the QED thing was also part of the “funnin” part. Just want to be clear.

  4. One resource that may be of interest here is Richard Muller’s PRRD Vol. 4, p. 324-332 in which he discusses the aseity of the Son (which is, I think, I related issue). Interestingly, Arminius argues for a more patristic understanding of this doctrine. To be sure, polemics were driving positions more than exegesis on a lot of doctrines as you point out above.

  5. In the Old Testament, some have rightly suggested, “God” was often pretty much made into a proper name, describing the OT “Father.” (Though see difficulties in translating “lord.”) Translators – rightly or wrongly – do appear to make “God” a rather proper name; as signified by the capitalization. Implying that God was just one and just one guy, “and no other,”so to speak; the Father probably.

    Later, in New Testament times though, Jesus showed up; and was said to be related to – even identical to – God. But they had different names. So? How to put them together, and say they were the same? At first, rather than assert complete identity, the NT settled on the formula, more often than not, of a “son of” God.

    What did Jesus himself in person say? Some theologians suggest we pay particular attention not just to all the Bible, but particularly words attributed to Jesus himself; the “red letters.” But Jesus – surely a major authority – was often quite coy on this however; mostly only asking others, “who do you say I am.”

    Eventually others around him at times assure Jesus he is at least say, the “son of” God. Regarding those few other parts, which are more assured in the complete identification of the two – suggesting that Jesus IS God – and “God” is in effect a generic term for all three? Those parts tend to be later in the text, and non-synoptic: as in The Gospel of John, c. 90 AD.

    Interestingly, those parts of the text that seem to allow a rather complete indentification/unification of Jesus, and God, the proposed unifying element, is not so much the term “God” per se. And it isdefinitely not “Trinity,” which is never mentioned by name even once in the entire text. Instead, if anything, the unifying element, the generic or unifying or “umbrella” term, for Father/Son/Spirit, seems to be that they three were unifed as being “one” with each other. Though the “one” is a rather Greek, Parmenidean concept, rather than strictly Jewish.

    Is there a better umbrella term than the “one”? Something with more punch than “Trinity”? Could we say today especially that “God” was not a proper name, but was a descriptive, generic category? So that if Jesus says “we are gods,” even lower-case, that would be his (and our?) entry into the godhead? Identity with “God”? The translators seemed to have militated against this; turning God into a proper name, by capitalizing it. No doubt, translators did this … knowing there are biblical objections too, to turning God into a generic term.

    Could we simply lose this distinction, in translation? The problem is that there were whole schools, there still are whole web sites, that argue that Jesus never said he was God; and that therefore the “Trinity” was always a bad concept.

    Though nearly every church today insists the Trinity is viable … what scripture firmly said Jesus was God? Either in a proper or generic sense? Those passages are extremely rare; it is possible to argue that there are no such passages at all.

    For example? John 1.1 says “In the beginning was the Word, and the word was God.” But what was the “word”? Originally it might have referred to scripture.

    John 5.18? Where Jews say Jesus said he was God? Is merely what the Jews said that Jesus said. Not reliable therefore.

    Jon 19.7? Same.

    Rev. 1.8? God is Alpha and Omega, and is to “come”; but which coming? Of specifically who? God himself, the father, is to come at the Judgement. So there is no clear univocal reference to Jesus.

    Personally, I admittedly see practical reasons, for those who assert – on the basis of little Biblical evidence – that Jesus was as good as God himself. And see the motivation of those who choose to use the term “Trinity” as the larger term.

    Still? The question is far, far more open than most think.

    Yes, I can see the forest for the trees. But finding a solid Biblical justification for the sacred threesome? That is far harder than anyone would guess, from hearing a thousand sermons vociferously supporting “The Trinity.” Indeed, aside from non-trinitarian biblical arguments, there is something lacking here, not just intellectually but emotionally: it is hard to pray, “Save me, oh Trinity.”

    Want to suggst that the “Holy Spirit” is the parent term? That’s an interesting possibility. Or suggest “God” as the parent term – as it is in ordinary usage? That runs into some significant and surprising biblical objections.

  6. Sorry to be jumping in here late in the game. I’ve been thinking on this post since I read it and have been wondering about how some typically describe the Trinity. “The Father is God, the Son is God, and Spirit is God, but there are not three Gods” (Calvin uses this language in Institutes 1.13.25). My worry is that it too easily implies that one of the persons could be God alone, without the other two. Surely, no trinitarian would agree to this, but it still seems like a problem. A simple switch from “God” to “divine” would ease the problem. Is this a fair statement? Should we do away with the wording of “The Father is God, the Son is God, and Spirit is God…” ?

    • In discussions on comparative religions, divine it often used to avoid conflicting positions on a Christian God (in English), Allah, Brahman, etc. On the Trinity, a quote from my ebook:

      “The distinction between persons does not impair the oneness of nature, nor does the shared unity of essence lead to a confusion between the distinctive characteristics of the persons. Do not be surprised that we should speak of the Godhead as being at the same time unified and differentiated…diversity-in- unity and unity-in-diversity.” St. Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 330-95)

    • Jordan, I think it is important to draw some distinctions here. First, we need to recognize the difference between biblical language and theological language. They are not often the same. Take the term “Son of God” for instance. This seems to just mean “messiah” in the New Testament, where as “Son of Man” was used to talk about Jesus’ divinity. The theological tradition switched this. Likewise, the Bible, in my mind, seems to use God to refer to Father. The term “God,” in other words, is a personal term – almost a name. “Divinity,” on the other hand, seems more helpful. The Father, Son and Spirit are all divine, they are all “God’s”, but when the Bible uses the term God we should recongize that it always has the personal reference to the Father. This is why the idea of “God’s Son” was so easy to appropriate. It is not the Trinity’s Son, but the Father’s.

      My worry is that the term God can easily become depersonalized, such that God now is used to refer solely to what the triune members share – essence. If this is done, even subconsciously, what we get is a god behind the triune three – the real God so to speak. I tried to use Ames’ Marrow of Divinity as an example of this.

      So, I am less concerned with the term God (calling the Son God, the Father God, etc.) and more concerned with how it is used in reference to the biblical texts. Also, I would want to focus on the fact that persons and essence are not two separate categories but have to be talked about in a single fashion. There is no singular “GOD” behind the Trinity. Therefore I would reject Ames’ development as unhelpful.

      In terms of your point about the fact that this could lead to one person being talked about in terms of God while the other two not, that is exactly what happened in the post-Reformed heretical movements as I noted in one of my comments. The Father’s turned to the divine names to solve this – God has eternally been Father. Any sort of Arianism takes this away, and the belief in an eternal Father is at the heart of orthodoxy.

  7. But if Jesus never says he is God, doesn’t this raise a horrible problem – and not only with whole concept of the Trinity? But raise san even more serious problem: was Jesus God? Was he equal to, a representative of God … or not?

    If Jesus 1) never says he is God? If 2) he even systematically avoids it? If furthermore, 3) arguably, he never really says he is “Christ” either? (The one time out of a hundred refusals, that he appeared to affirm his status as Christ, note, is narrated differently in parallel texts in other gospels)

    If so? Then how much authority should we give Jesus therefore? Should we say Jesus was God? Or was equal to God at all?

    If not, then Christianity itself would seem ill-founded. And to have misunderstood and overestimated, its own eponymous founder.

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