Trinitarian Musings

I had reason this past week to revisit some ancient Trinitarian controversies that I had long forgotten about and would have thought were put to rest long ago by Reformed theologians, not least of which is John Calvin himself.  In the process I had the opportunity to revisit Robert Reymond’s discussion of the Trinity in his New Systematic Theology which tracks closely and elucidates Gordon Clark’s theory of the unity of the Persons of the Trinity.  The following is is from Clark’s piece on the Trinity as discussed in  Reymond’s systematic theology (320-324):

Suppose we have a lot of dice of various sizes. They all have the same shape. Now, this shape is something real. Even though the shape comes in different sizes, it is the same identical shape. If sensory objects alone were real, there could be no idea of similarity or identity, for none of the individual dice is itself similarity. Nor is any one of the dice cube. If one of the dice were the cube, and if only sense objects are real, then no other die could be cube. Hence, there is a real object of knowledge, the cube. It is not a sense object, not only for the preceding reason, but also because this cube exists in many places at once, as no sense object can. Similarly, Plato united all men under the Idea Man, all horses under the Horse, and all beautiful things under real Beauty. With other arguments also Plato asserted the reality of knowable intellectual objects.

The other part of Platonic theory that no Christian can accept, and Philo’s transformation of it, will be discussed in the next chapter. But without this part of the theory, viz., the assertion of non-sensory intellectual objects, it is hard to see how an understanding of the Bible would be possible. To begin with, God himself is a non-sensory object. So is the idea of justification by faith-as well as man and animal and cube. Empiricism would require all nouns to be proper names of individual sense objects; it can never account for the unity in this multiplicity, and therefore renders both communication and thought impossible.

Now, when we face the subject of the Trinity-the common unity in the three Persons-may we not say that the three Persons share or communicate the common characteristics of omnipotence, omniscience, and so forth, and so constitute one essence? The Platonic point of view makes this essence a reality, as truly as Man and Beauty are real. Were the essence not a reality, and the Persons therefore the only realities, we should have tritheism instead of monotheism.

As Reymond explains:

What Clark is saying here, in other words, is that if their Persons (distinguished as Person by distinguishing “personal properties”) are absolutely identical in all the attributes of deity, they are really and essentially one God; their one identical divine essence is as real as the distinguishable properties of the Persons. Three Persons with the same omnipresence would have one omnipresence. Three Persons with the same omniscience would have one omniscience. Three Persons with the same omnipotence would have one omnipotence. Three Persons with the same all-encompassing purpose would have one purposed. Three Persons identical in divine essence would be, in a word, one God.

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13 Comments on “Trinitarian Musings”

  1. Cliffton Says:


    No big deal, but I can’t find Reymond’s explanation of Clark’s statements on the Trinity. I have Reymond’s second addition. Maybe it was in the first edition?

  2. Bob S Says:

    Clifton or anybody else for that matter, can you tell me the differences between the fist and second edition of Reymond? I have the first and liked it very much. He took some real heat over insisting on autotheos and Chris or Calvin contra the Nicene Creed. Was that one of the changes?
    Thank you.

  3. Sean Gerety Says:

    Bob, I must have the first edition too (and also liked it very much). 🙂 I can’t imagine what sort of heat he got? For example here’s Hodge on Calvin:

    “Calvin was accused by some of his contemporaries of teaching the incompatible doctrines of Sabellianism and Arianism. In a letter to his friend Simon Grynée, rector of the Academy of Basle, dated May, 1537, he says the ground on which the charge of Sabellianism rested, was his having said that Christ was “that Jehovah, who of Himself alone was always self-existent, which charge,” he says, “I was quite ready to meet.” His answer is: “If the distinction between the Father and the Word be attentively considered, we shall say that the one is from the other. If, however, the essential quality of the Word be considered, in so far as He is one God with the Father, whatever can be said concerning God may also be applied to Him the Second Person in the glorious Trinity. Now, what is the meaning of the name Jehovah? What did that answer imply which was spoken to Moses? I AM THAT I AM. Paul makes Christ the author of this saying.” This argument is conclusive. If Christ be Jehovah, and if the name Jehovah implies self-existence, then Christ is self-existent. In other words, self-existence and necessary existence, as well as omnipotence and all other divine attributes, belong to the divine essence common to all the persons of the Trinity, and therefore it is the Triune God who is self-existent, and not one person in distinction from the other persons. That is, self-existence is not to be predicated of the divine essence only, nor of the Father only, but of the Trinity, or of the Godhead as subsisting in three persons. And, therefore, as Calvin says, when the word God is used indefinitely it means the Triune God, and not the Father in distinction from the Son and Spirit.”

    Who could possibly deny self-existence to the Son? I know all to well that some do, but do you have any links or citations where Reymond was taken to task for affirming the self-existence of all Three Persons?

  4. Sean Gerety Says:

    I found one Bob…and to answer your question Cliffton:

    The modern claim, though it takes various forms, is that Calvin provided a critique of the inadequacies of the Nicene trinitarian tradition, and supplied a modified trinitarianism which secured the total equality between the divine Father, Son, and Spirit. Certain other claims have mentioned a distinctive “Calvinistic” doctrine of the Trinity, as well as calling for modern Reformed Christians to redefine certain key tenants of the Nicene Creed, most notably the eternal generation of the Son and procession of the Spirit. This has been met with applause for Calvin’s bravery and Scriptural fidelity on the one hand, and harsh criticisms on the other. A example of the latter can be seen in the reviews of the first edition of Robert Reymond’s A New Systematic Theology, which criticized it for its proposals regarding trinitarian theology.[1] Reymond attempted to meet some of these criticisms in a second edition released in 2001, and the changes are informative. Now gone are the reliance upon Gordon Clark’s criticisms of traditional language, the assertion that “Calvin contended against the subordinationism implicit in the Nicene language,”[2] and the concluding contrast between Nicene trinitarianism and “Reformed” trinitarianism. What has replaced these claims, however, is a section entitled “More recent Reformed opinion” in which Reymond seeks to show that he is not alone in holding his perspective. Indeed, he moves the burden from simply his own views to the larger trajectory of Reformed thought. Particularly striking is his quotation from Gerald Bray which asserts, “the Protestant Reformers, in spite of their links with the Augustinian tradition, … had a vision of God which was fundamentally different from anything which had gone before, or what has appeared since.”[3] While the quotation had appeared as a footnote in the first edition, it now appears in the body of his argument. Reymond then goes on to list several traditionalist Reformed theologians who support his position: Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, and John Murray.[4] Apparently Reymond is not the first Reformed thinker to see a significant discontinuity between Calvin and the Nicene tradition.

  5. Cliffton Says:


    Thank you.

  6. Bob S Says:

    Thanks, Sean. Hadn’t really expected an answer, never mind quick in that while I saw some reviews of the first edition, the second seemed to sink without a trace.

    And as I have said before, while I am no fan of (now a baptist for insufficient reasons) G.Crampton per se, it was his review of Reymond in the Trinity Review that provoked me to buy it in the first place. If Augustine said a true teacher inspires love for his subject in his students, Crampton accomplished the aims of his review.


  7. Interesting. The Nicene Creed held a heretical view of the Trinity? Isn’t that oxymoronic?

  8. Sean, do you think Hodge & Reymond are correct in that Calvin’s Trinitarianism is different from that of the Nicene Creed, or is the article correct and Calvin was in harmony with it (contra Hodge & Reymond)?

  9. Sean Gerety Says:

    Patrick, I don’t know how interested you are in having the discussion on the Clark FB page spill over here as I thought Ryan was interested in simply road testing the theory he’s adopted (more or less, but I’m inclined to say more) from Drake Shelton and didn’t want that kind of exposure.

    But, I think we already covered all this re Hodge on FB and as Clark argued some of what Hodge argued was based on an historic misunderstanding. I would say the same probably goes for Reymond. I think they probably overstate the alleged differences, but I’m not really an expert in Calvin’s trinitarianism to say for sure. For example, Calvin states:

    Therefore we say that the deity in an absolute sense exists of itself; whence likewise we confess that the Son since he is God, exists of himself, but not in respect of his Person; indeed, since he is the Son, we say that he exists from the Father. Thus his essence is without beginning; while the beginning of his person is God himself.

    And, just so there can be no confusion the author writes:

    To summarize Calvin’s position on autotheos, we can say that he applied it to the Son insofar as he was speaking about the Son’s nature. The Son is autotheos because He possesses the fullness of the divine nature (which is itself autoousia). When speaking of the person, however, Calvin affirms that the Son is “from the Father.” “Thus the essence is without principium; but the principium of the Person is God Himself.

    I tend to agree with the author that Calvin is in harmony with Nicea, but I think you have to agree that if the author is correct or if Reymond,, are correct, either view is a far cry from the kind of suborniationism being advanced by Ryan, Drake and those who are jumping on that questionably bandwagon.

  10. I was just curious what your take was.

    I’m trying to figure out how Nicea’s “One God, the Father,” and the Son’s being “very God OF very God” actually means “One God, the Trinity,” and the Son being “God of Himself”.

    I’m not saying it can’t, it just sure doesn’t look like it.

  11. Sean Gerety Says:

    I will say, I do agree with Reymond that the WCF’s stripped down version is less prone to misinterpretation and Calvin and Clark were right to criticize some of the wording of the of the original creed. For example, consider WCF II.3:

    In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.

    When you get a chance go back and read the previous two sections. It seems to me that rather than being descriptive of the singular unity of God as the Confession maintains, my opponents on FB would have to argue that sections 1 and 2 are meant to be understood in terms of the Father alone to the exclusion of the other two Persons, especially when we confess; “he is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom, are all things.”

    As Reymond explains if all three Persons are identical in all the attributes of deity (as opposed to their distinguishing personal properties), then they are really and essentially one God who “is the alone fountain of all being.” By shifting the “fountain of being” to the personal property of the Father undermines and distorts the entire confession concerning who God is. Frankly, and Calvin notwithstanding, it is a complete rejection of the historic creed.

  12. 1WilliamFarel Says:


    In addressing the question of the Trinity, I always found Aquinas’s discussion in “Contra Gentiles” to be very helpful. Although it has been some time since I read his explanation, my recollection is this. God the Father, being a Person, has a sense of Himself and He knows perfectly in His mind who and what He is. This Idea, this perfect Idea, of Himself is as eternal as He is. His knowledge is eternal and unchangeable and therefore so is this Idea. Also, because there is no potentiality in God but only full actuality, this Idea also exists in act. This Idea is the Son. This Idea is itself God, sharing the same essence as the Father. He is distinct from the Father, using the creedal language, being begotten (from the Father’s mind) but not made (since God’s knowledge, especially of Himself, has no beginning or end).

    While I would reject Thomas’s Romanism, I’ve always found his explanation of the Trinity to be very helpful as I’ve sought to understand it better. I find it far better than the nonsensical insistence in some quarters today that the Doctrine of the Trinity is a paradox we must hold “in tension.” What do you think?

  13. Steve M Says:

    I am not that familiar with Aquinas’ discussion, but it sounds similar to ideas expressed by Jonathan Edwards in his “Unpublished Essay on the Trinity”

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