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.