Calvin’s Institutes — Family Devotional Edition
The Doctrine of the Trinity
When the Apostle calls the Son of God “the express image of his person” (Heb. 1:3), he undoubtedly assigns to the Father some subsistence in which he differs from the Son. Because the Father has expressed himself wholly in the Son, he is said with perfect reason to have rendered his person manifest in him. This accords with what immediately follows: that the Son is “the brightness of his glory.” The fair inference from the Apostle’s words is that there is a proper subsistence of the Father which shines brightly in the Son. From this, again it is easy to infer that there is a subsistence of the Son which distinguishes him from the Father. The same holds in the case of the Holy Spirit; for we will immediately prove both that he is God and that he has a separate subsistence from the Father.
The early Christians, when harassed with the disputes which heresies produced, were forced to declare their sentiments in terms most scrupulously exact in order that no indirect subterfuges might remain to ungodly men, to whom ambiguity of expression was a kind of hiding place. Arius confessed that Christ was God and the Son of God because the passages of Scripture to this effect were too clear to be resisted; then, as if he had done well, he pretended to concur with others. Meanwhile, he did not cease to say that Christ was created and had a beginning like other creatures. To drag this man of wiles out of his lurking places, the ancient Church took an extra step and declared that Christ is the eternal Son of the Father, of the same substance with the Father. The impiety was fully disclosed when the Arians began to declare their hatred and utter detestation of the term “same substance” (homoousios). Had their first confession—that Christ was God—been sincere and from the heart, they would not have denied that he was of the same substance with the Father. Who dares charge those ancient writers as men of strife and contention for having debated so warmly and disturbed the quiet of the Church for a single word? That little word distinguished between Christians of pure faith and the blasphemous Arians.
Next Sabellius arose, who counted the names of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as almost non-entities. He said they were not used to mark out a distinction, but that they were different attributes of God. When the matter was debated, he acknowledged his belief that the Father was God, the Son God, the Spirit God; but then he had the evasion ready that he had said nothing more than if he had called God powerful, just, and wise. Then he sung another tune—that the Father was the Son, and the Holy Spirit the Father, without order or distinction. The worthy doctors who then had the interests of piety at heart, in order to defeat this man’s dishonesty, proclaimed that three substances are to be truly acknowledged in the one God. They affirmed that a Trinity of persons subsisted in the one God, or (which is the same thing) in the unity of God.
The modesty of these holy men should be an admonition to us not instantly to dip our pen in gall and sternly denounce those who may be unwilling to swear to the theological terms we have devised, provided they do not betray pride, petulance, or unbecoming heat, but are willing to ponder the necessity which compels us so to speak, and may thus become gradually accustomed to a useful form of expression. Should any be so superstitiously precise as not to tolerate these terms, they will not be able to deny that when one is spoken of, a unity of substance must be understood, and when three in one essence, the persons in this Trinity are denoted. When this is confessed without equivocations, we do not dwell on mere words.
Questions for Devotion
- What do we learn about distinctions between the Father and Son from Hebrews 1:3?
- Which heresy denies that the oneness, or equality, of the three Persons in God?
- Which heresy denies the three-ness of the Persons of God?
- Use the terms “substance” and “person” to declare the biblical doctrine of the Trinity.