Calvin on the eternal generation of the Son.

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Puritan Board Sophomore
Does anybody have any info on this?

From another board:

Calvin claimed that:

The beginning of deity not in the bestowing of essence, as fanatics babble, but by reason of order. Institutes I.13.24

Explicitly denying the eternal generation of the Son he continued:

We teach from the Scriptures that God is one in essence, and hence that the essence of the Son and of the Spirit is unbegotten. I.13.25

This is a direct denial of the eternal generation of the Son, that he is 'God from God'. This is acknowledged.

Calvinist John Murray writes concerning this time:

Students of historical theology are acquainted with the furore which Calvin's insistence upon the self-existence of the Son as to his deity aroused at the time of the Reformation. Calvin was too much a student of Scripture to be content to follow the lines of what had been regarded as Nicene orthodoxy on this particular issue. He was too jealous for the implications of the homo-ousion clause of the Nicene creed to be willing to accede to the interpretation which the Nicene fathers, including Athanasius, placed upon another expression in the same creed, namely 'Very God of Very God'...this evidence shows that the meaning intended is that the Son derived his deity from the Father and that the Son was not therefore autotheos. It was precisely this position that Calvin controverted with vigour. (Systematic Theology, Westminster Theological Journal 25)

Presbyterian scholar Robert Reymond echoes this:

In chapter nine, I urge upon my reader the Reformation view of the Trinity, which is distinctly different in some respects from the "œNiceno-Constantinopolitan" representation of that doctrine which held sway for over thirteen hundred years before it was challenged by John Calvin and which, regrettably, is still espoused unwittingly by too many of his followers. (Preface, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, First Edition)


Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
From the same I.13.25:
Therefore we say that deity in an absolute sense exists of itself; whence likewise we confess that the Son since he is God, exists of himslef, but not in respect to 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. Those orthodox writers who formerly spoke concerning the Trinity applied this name only to the persons, since it would have been not only an absurd error but the sheerest impiety to embrace the essence in this distinction. For those who want to make a Trinity of these three--Essence, Son, and Spirit--are plainly annihilating the essence of the Son and Spirit; otherwise the parts joined together would fall apart, and this is faulty in any distinction. 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.
Calvin sounds pretty clear to me. He wants to protect the Son (and Spirit) as autotheos, as God-in-himself, and not a derivative of true deity. Calvin defends himself in following sections with appeals to Church Fathers.

But he does say, I.13.29, "It is foolish to imagine a continuous act of begetting, since it is clear that three persons have subsisted in God from eternity." Does this deny the eternal generation? I can see how someone might construe it that way, but Calvin's emphasis seems to be on denying the "continuous" nature of begetting, as if the Son is (now) being begotten, instead of having been begotten (eternally).

This controversy makes me think of CVT being pilloried for speaking of God's essence as "person", himself meaning that God's essence is not an absolute "IT", deity is not a "thing", but is absolutely "personal".

Likewise, if we may be falling, or in danger of falling, into an error through our (mis-)use of traditional formulations--either not understanding them as intended, or because they need an additional run at the whet-stone, we ought to at least hear someone out and understand them and their concerns. In other words, if Calvin (or CVT) may himself be misunderstood as to his language (infelicitous?), should we not ask whether what they are trying to say or guard is in fact orthodoxy?

Calvin denies ontological subordinationism. He affirms an economic subordination. What is unorthodox about that?


Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
Perhaps it would be good to add that Warfield's article, The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity (Biblical Doctrines, Banner of Truth, 1988, which is vol 2 of the Oxford orig./Baker reprint), final paragraph, pp169-71, nicely summarizes and defends Calvin, placing him in the first rank of defenders of Trinitarian orthodoxy, alongside Tertullian, Athanasius, and Augustine.

If Calvin dissented from the idea that eternal generation implied ontological subordination or mode of subsistience, and did so by dissenting from the "original intent" of the Creeds phraseology: "Very God OF very God" (while at the same time defending all the implications that homoousia demanded) we must judge him, as the quotes point out, by the standard of Scripture, and not by the terms "what everywhere, always, and by everyone has been believed."

[Edited on 1-14-2006 by Contra_Mundum]

C. Matthew McMahon

Christian Preacher
Take Calvin in his fuller context...

"But as Christ was not yet manifested, we necessarily understand that the Word was begotten of the Father before all ages." (1.13.7)

"œNow O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was," (John 17:5.) Nor is this omitted by John: for before he descends to the creation of the world, he says, that "œin the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God." We, therefore, again conclude, that the Word was eternally begotten by God, and dwelt with him from everlasting. In this way, his true essence, his eternity, and divinity, are established." (1.13.8)

"For as the Jews themselves teach that the other names of God are mere epithets, whereas this, which they call the ineffable name, is substantive, and expresses his essence, we infer, that the only begotten Son is the eternal God, who elsewhere declares, "œMy glory will I not give to another," (Isaiah 42:8.)" (1.13.9)

"This distinction did not take its beginning at the incarnation: for it is clear that the only begotten Son previously existed in the bosom of the Father, (John 1:18.)" (1.13.17)

"They object, that if the Son is truly God, he must be deemed the Son of a person: which is absurd. I answer, that both are true; namely, that he is the Son of God, because he is the Word, begotten of the Father before all ages; (for we are not now speaking of the Person of the Mediator,) and yet, that for the purpose of explanation, regard must be had to the Person, so that the name God may not be understood in its absolute sense, but as equivalent to Father. For if we hold that there is no other God than the Fathers this rank is clearly denied to the Son." (1.13.23)

"For ever since Christ was manifested in the flesh he is called the Son of God, not only because begotten of the Father before all worlds he was the Eternal Word, but because he undertook the person and office of the Mediator that he might unite us to God." (1.13.24)


Puritan Board Graduate
I am not sure I follow Matt and Bruce. Are you guys saying that Murray and Reymond are wrong in their assessment of Calvin being outside Nicean / Cons doctrinal teachings? Sounds like you are trying to place Calvin inside those teachings.

[Edited on 1-16-2006 by Scott]

R. Scott Clark

Puritan Board Senior
Originally posted by Scott
I am not sure I follow Matt and Bruce. Are you guys saying that Murray and Reymond are wrong in their assessment of Calvin being outside Nicean / Cons doctrinal teachings? Sounds like you are trying to place Calvin inside those teachings.

[Edited on 1-16-2006 by Scott]

As far as I know, Calvin was perfectly orthodox in his Trinitarianism. He preferred subsistentia over persona because he wanted to avoid ontological (i.e., in the divine being) subordinationism. Persona is liable to being misunderstood as "mask."

He did not deny the eternal generation of the Son, as Matt's quotations show.

My impression is that Reymond has difficulty with this issue (but I haven't looked into it as I should) but I don't remember Mr Murray criticizing Calvin on this.

When Calvin said autotheos he was simply saying that the Son, as true God, has deity of himself as well as a subsistential, eternal, relation to the Father.

He used the term subsistence to distinguish between the Divine essence and his tri-personality. These sorts of considerations are sometimes developed under the heading ontological Trinity, i.e., the Trinity regarding God´s being. He reminded us that there are certain attributes that belong to each trinitarian person that are not shared among the persons of the Trinity. Recognizing these distinctions is part of not "œconfounding the persons" (Athanasian Creed). These properties unique to each person distinguish (not separate) each person from the others.

For example, only the Father is unbegotten. "œThe Father is made of none, neither created, nor begotten" (Athanasian Creed). The Son, because he is such, is eternally begotten. "œThe Son is of the Father alone, not made, nor created, but begotten" (Athanasian Creed). Only the Spirit is able to proceed from the Father and the Son. "œThe Holy Spirit is of the Father and Son, neither made, nor created nor begotten, but proceeding" (Athanasian Creed). Considered distinctly however, each divine person can be said to be God "œof himself", i.e., the Father, Son and Spirit subsist of themselves. "œAnd in this Trinity none is afore, or after other; none is greater, or less than another" (Athanasian Creed).

As some one (Bruce?) mentioned, it is important to keep Calvin's ontological/economic distinction in mind. We must mark when he's speaking in ontic or economic categories.

There's no question in the academic literature whether Calvin was Nicene in his doctrine of the Trinity.

Calvin certainly believed himself to be Nicene as the did the Reformed orthodox. His doctrine of the Trinity was one was the areas he expanded as the Institutes grew between '36 and '59 in response to anti-Trinitarian critics. See my book (ch 5, I think) on this.

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