Trinitarian Reformational

An integrated vision

The Basis of Reformational Trinitarianism

The key break is with the medieval scholastic dichotomy between intellectualism and voluntarism. Calvin rejected both with his dictum “deus solus legibus solutus est” (“God alone is free of law” – against a intellectualist understanding of God) “sed non exlex” (“but is not arbitrary” – a rejection of the voluntarist position). God for Calvin can only be known as he reveals himself – that is, as Trinity. Any attempt to get “behind” God’s Triune reality or posit a non-Triune essence is vacuous speculation – an empty idea flitting around the brain.

How the dichotomy is overcome was not fully developed in Calvin, but is developed more elsewhere in Reformed tradition. God cannot be bound by forms outside of the Godhead – God binds himself, freely, in the eternal pact between the Three Persons which is the basis of our creation (Genesis 1:26) and redemption (John 17:2). In the Reformed tradition, this eternal pact is misleadingly called the “covenant of redemption” but it not just about redemption, but about creation as well – it is according to the will/authority of the Father that all things are created, through the Son and by the Spirit. It finds its political expression in the federal ideal – not least in the thought of Johannes Althusius, the great German Reformed philosopher, and also more recently, in the thought of Abraham Kuyper, with his notion of sphere sovereignty. The covenant of redemption is also key to the thought of Jonathan Edwards, as well the theologians of “Old Princeton”, such as the Hodges and especially B.B. Warfield, as well as Bavinck in the Netherlands. However, the old scholasticism does tend to creep back, with the old scholastic lists of “communicable” and “incommunicable” attributes with which the old systematic theologies tended to be prefaced. God does not “possess” attributes in this way – God simply is who he reveals himself to be – “I am who I am”.

There has been something of a rediscovery of the centrality and implications of the doctrine of the Trinity in the latter half of the Twentieth Century, especially in the Western Church (where it tended somewhat to be pushed to one side – unlike in the Eastern Church, where there has been much deeper and more extensive reflection on the Trinity, not least by the “Cappadocian Fathers” – Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus). The being (ontology) of the Trinity consists in the relations of the Persons – the Persons are mutually dependent (pace Subordinationism) and eternally distinct (pace Monarchian Modalism). This is not something which arises from creation – the Triune being is not dependent on creation or redemption, but is revealed “economically” (as theologians say) through creation and redemption. Of course we can only know God through creation, but we have God’s self-attesting revelation that he is Triune. There are no categories of being to which God needs to conform – but God reveals himself finally and authoritatively how we are to speak of him, and that it true; and it is that truth which is the key to the universe. We know God himself because we know Jesus, whose fully human personality is at one and the same time, the personality of God.


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