Part 16: God is Three (1.13)
German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) once concluded: “The doctrine of the Trinity provides nothing, absolutely nothing, of practical value even if one claims to understand it; still less when one is convinced that it far surpasses our understanding. It costs the student nothing to accept that we adore three or ten persons in the divinity … Furthermore, this distinction offers absolutely no guidance for his conduct.”
Kant needed a healthy dose of Humble Calvinism.
In our series on The Shepherd’s Scrapbook, we’ve been tracing out Calvin’s thought through the Institutes to see just how applicable theology is. Here, in a lengthy chapter on the Triunity of God, Calvin does not disappoint. For the sake of brevity, we’ll be narrowing our attention away from Servetus and the evidence for the doctrines of the Trinity to focus on the consequences of this Triunity of God.
So how would Calvin respond to the idea that the Triunity of God is without practical value? Here are some thoughts from this chapter.
1. Triunity abolishes vain thoughts of God. Calvin writes, “Indeed, his spiritual nature forbids our imagining anything earthly or carnal of him … because he sees that our slow minds sink down upon the earth, and rightly, in order to shake off our sluggishness and inertia he raises us above the world” (121). This fits in the context of idolatry we’ve seen in the past two chapters. Sinners naturally weave gods for themselves, made in their own images according to their own whims. God says, ‘Look at my majesty and see that I am higher and deeper than your little mind could imagine.’ The Triunity of God as a doctrine is useful to confront our theological laziness and pushes us into divine mystery.
2. Triunity is central to our knowledge of God. Calvin writes that unless we grasp the nature of God in three persons, “only the bare and empty name of God flits about in our brains, to the exclusion of the true God” (122). As long as we think God is primarily found in religious rituals, icons, statues, and visual reminders, we’ll never understand Him to any degree. We are prone to make a god in our own image instead of resting in the Scripture-revealed God. Faith in the mysterious Trinity is both an axe at the root of idolatry and the path to a true knowledge of God. Without knowing of God’s Triunity, we cannot know Him.
3. Triunity highlights our need for revelation. A significant shift in the Institutes is taking place. Calvin was showing the limits of general revelation (visual and created world), but now is shifting to show the importance of special revelation (in Scripture). We cannot understand the nature of the Trinity without God’s revelation in the Word. Philosophers beware. Calvin writes,
“Here, indeed, if anywhere in the secret mysteries of Scripture, we ought to play the philosopher soberly and with great moderation … For how can the human mind measure off the measureless essence of God according to its own little measure … let us not take it into our heads wither to seek out God anywhere else than in his Sacred Word, or to think anything about him that is not prompted by his Word, or to speak anything that is not taken from that Word” (146).
That the Triunity of God surpasses knowledge has great practical use. It reminds us that natural revelation and philosophy are insufficient to know the deep mysteries of God. We must worship God in spirit and that assumes worshipping Him with truth otherwise invisible to our eyes (John 4:23). Our knowledge and worship of God wholly depend upon biblical revelation.
4. Triunity of God shows the importance of preaching. We should leave God’s explanation of Himself to Himself. But this revelation of God in His Word should be preached with boldness. Calvin here pushes past all the apparent ‘dangers’ of the doctrine of God’s Triunity. Don’t neglect it, he says.
In this chapter Calvin showed us the distinctions between the Father (as the wellspring), the Son (as the ordered disposition of all things) and the Spirit (as the powerful working in all things). Here Calvin was cautious of his distinctions that they may give “calumny to the malicious” or a “delusion to the ignorant.” But even in light of these dangers Calvin concludes it is “not fitting to suppress the distinction that we observe to be expressed in Scripture” (142). In other words, take God at His word.
The Triunity of God may at first appear to have no practical value, or appear open to misrepresentation, but Calvin was fully aware of Scripture’s power. If you trust in the power of Scripture, you’ll preach the doctrines contained. All Christians are called to “yield” and “be ruled by the heavenly oracles” even if we “fail to capture the height of the mystery” (146-147). Paul reminds us that God transforms us as we behold His glory with unveiled hearts (2 Cor. 3:17-18). So what God has revealed, preach boldly!
5. Triunity as central to our experience of God. We cannot know God if we don’t grasp the Trinity. John Owen’s masterpiece, Communion with God, is formed around the Triunity of God. Calvin would agree wholeheartedly – to know the true God we must know and experience Him in His three ‘persons.’
6. Triunity as central to the health of Christianity. Because the glory of God stands at the center of Christianity, a denial of the Triunity of God is a major danger (147). It embraces the very nature of God, the deity of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Without this foundation, all other knowledge of God will be false. Calvin writes that Satan has always sown heresies “in order to tear our faith from its roots” (145). And Calvin concludes this lengthy chapter by revealing his motive to dwell on the nature of the Triunity of God: “I am zealous for the edification of the church” (159). Calvin does not write and debate over the Triunity of God because he enjoys theological speculation. The health of the church is at stake.
7. Triunity as central to salvation. To deny that the Holy Spirit is God is to deny all of God. Salvation cannot be had if we deny the Triunity of God. Scripture severely warns us that to deny the Son (for example) is to deny the Father also (1 John 2:23, 4:15, 5:1).
8. Triunity brings the believer assurance. It was Francis Turretin, a close follower of Calvin’s theology, that concluded the Triunity of God has everything to do with our own assurances. Our hearts find consolation in the triple security of the the Son, the Father and the Spirit (see Elenctic, 3.24.18).
And our points could go on…
So why does a philosopher say the Triunity of God has no practical importance and Calvinists like John Owen center all experiences of God within the framework of the Trinity? The philosopher starts with man in order to interpret God. The Calvinist starts with God and then interprets herself. The Humble Calvinist begins with the core of all reality – that God’s own glory is the most important fact of human history. Only when we start with God does this Triunity become the most profound, ineffable, sweet and practical doctrine in the world!
Richard Muller writes a fitting conclusion: “The Reformed orthodox theologians’ profound sense of the ultimate and foundational nature of the doctrine of the Trinity for faith and worship and for the architecture and content of theological system frequently leads them to discuss at length the ‘practical use’ of the doctrine in the church” (Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 4:154).
The Triunity of God was (and remains) at the heart of all Christian life and practice.
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