Article by: Robert L. Reymond

Analysis of the Nicene Creed and It’s Christology

It was in light of such biblical data as we have surveyed in Chapter Eight that the Christians of the first three centuries—as monotheistic in their outlook as ancient Israel and who in fact believed that they were worshiping the God of Israel when they worshiped God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit—began to formulate their doctrine of God in Trinitarian terms. That is to say, the early church’s Trinitarianism was a proper and necessary deduction from its conviction that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit were both divine persons. The formulating process itself, precipitated in the first three centuries particularly by the emergence of second-century Gnosticism and the Logos Christology, by third-century Sabellianism and early fourth-century Arianism, brought the church to a basic but real crystallization of the doctrine in the Nicene Creed of 325 a.d. That creed of the First Ecumenical Council reads as follows:

We believe in one God the Father, Almighty, Creator of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only begotten, that is, from the essence of the Father [ἐκ τῆς οὐσίας τοῦ πατρός, ek tēs ousias tou patros], God from God [θεὸν ἐκ θεοῦ, theon ek theou], Light from Light, true God from true God [θεὸν ἀληθινὸν ἐκ θεοῦ ἀληθινοῦ, theon alethinon ek theou alēthinou], begotten not created, of the same essence of the Father [ὁμοούσιον τῷ πατρί, homoousion to patri], through whom all things came into being, both in heaven and in earth; who for us men and for our salvation came down and was incarnate, becoming human. He suffered and the third day he rose, and ascended into the heavens. And he will come to judge both the living and the dead.

And [we believe] in the Holy Spirit.

But those who say, Once he was not, or he was not before his generation, or he came to be out of nothing, or who assert that he, the Son of God, is of a different hypostasis or ousia, or that he is a creature, or changeable, or mutable, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.1

Its Major Affirmations

By its Creed the Nicene Council affirmed, first, that the church would continue to be a Trinitarian church (see the earlier “Trinitarian” form of the earlier Old Roman Symbol). Its Trinitarian commitment is evident in the very cast of the Creed itself: “We believe in one God the Father, Almighty, Creator of all things visible and invisible, and in one Lord Jesus Christ … , of the same essence of the Father, through whom all things came into being, both in heaven and in earth…, and in the Holy Spirit.”

Second, by confessing faith in the ὁμοούσια, homoousia, (“same essence”) of the Son with the Father, which is an essential part of the doctrine of the Trinity, and describing him as “true God,” the Council affirmed the church’s continuing commitment to the full deity of the Son of God.

Third, confessing its faith in the terms that it did, the Council, with its doctrine of the ὁμοούσια, homoousia, distanced the church from all forms of polytheism, tritheism, and Arianism.

Fourth, by distinguishing between the Father and the Son the way it did (the Father eternally begets the Son; the Son is being eternally begotten of the Father), the Council distanced the church from all forms of Sabellianism.

Fifth, by confessing that the one Lord Jesus Christ, who as both “true God” and “of the same essence of the Father,” “for us men and for our salvation came down and became flesh, becoming man, suffered and rose the third day, ascended into heaven, and is coming to judge the living and the dead,” the Council declared that the church would continue to represent itself as a redeemed community with a message of redemption, at the center of which message stands the real Incarnation of God in the Person of the Son, the result of which event is the divine-human Lord Jesus Christ.

In sum, the Council declared that the church would continue to retain at the heart of its faith, as the centerpiece of its doctrinal life and devotional piety, the truth of the one living and true God (its monotheism being assured by the “same essence” clause), who eternally subsists as three distinct self-conscious Selves in the one divine unity who stand in “I—You” relation each to the other (the doctrine of tres personae in una substantia). The church, it determined, would also continue to confess that the triune Godhead revealed itself in the Incarnation of the Son through the power of the Spirit for redemptive purposes.

Three Issues

This conciliar description of the God of Christian theism raises three issues in particular with regard to the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity: (1) the meaning of “person” in the Trinitarian construction, (2) the relationship of the three Persons to the one divine essence, and (3) the theological meaning of the doctrinal instrument which the Nicene Fathers employed to distinguish between the Father and the Son, namely, the Father’s eternal generation of the Son. Each of these requires comment.

The Meaning of “Person”

What is the meaning of “person” in the orthodox representation of the Trinity? Etymologically, the word is from the Latin persona, from per, “through,” and sono, “speak,” hence, “speak through” and thus the “mask” through which the Roman actor spoke, and hence the specific “character” he portrayed. The word, it is true, does not appear in the Nicene Creed per se. But it is the word with a history of doctrinal usage that went back as far as Tertullian and which eventually came to be universally used by the church to designate the Three Selves in the One God and to distinguish them from the one divine essence which each is as God.

Today it is commonly understood by orthodox theologians to refer in the Trinitarian context to a “conscious self or ego,” that is, a “center of self-consciousness.” But it is often alleged that persona did not mean in the fourth and fifth centuries what it means today, that it originally referred only to “roles” which God assumed, and that it has only been since the days of Descartes and Locke that “person” has been defined as a self-conscious center of individuality, and that, therefore, because of its modern divergence in meaning away from its first and original intention, “person” should be abandoned as a theological term which has lost its usefulness. What are we to say in response? Here we need to be reminded of Calvin’s opinion that all such words as the church finds useful after the close of the canon to aid in the understanding of Scripture are admissible provided they attest to what Scripture itself teaches. There is nothing, I admit, sacrosanct about the word “person,” and if the church were to discover another word which more accurately conveyed the intention of Scripture, I would welcome it. Indeed, I am certain that John Calvin speaks for every Christian when he writes:

I could wish they [that is, the Greek words, ὁμοούσια, homoousia, οὔσια, ousia, πρόσωπον, prosōpon, and the Latin substantia, persona] were buried, if only among all men this faith were agreed on: that Father and Son and Spirit are one God, yet the Son is not the Father, nor the Spirit the Son, but that they are differentiated by a peculiar quality.2

John Murray also warns:

We must jealousy avoid the danger of attaching the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity to certain terms of merely human device if these terms are shown to be inadequate or misleading, and we must not allow the doctrine of the Trinity to be prejudiced by the fluctuations of meaning to which words are subjected in different periods of thought.3

But having issued these caveats, Murray also writes:

With reference to the word ‘person’ … , it does not appear … that the alleged change since the time of Descartes and Locke has ruled out the propriety of the use of the word ‘person’ … with reference to the distinctions and differentiations that are immanent and eternal in God … why should we have any hesitation in thinking of ‘self-consciousness’ as predicable of each of the persons of the Godhead? Why should we have difficulty in viewing each person as ‘a distinct centre of consciousness’? … Does not the Scripture represent the Father as addressing the Son as ‘Thou’ and the Son the Father as ‘Thou’? … And the same must hold true of the Holy Spirit if trinitarian distinction applies to him as well as to the Father and the Son. And does not the Scripture teach us to address the persons of the Trinity in their distinctiveness as well as in their unity? If we are to address the Father in his distinctiveness as the Father in heaven, his ‘Thou’ must be distinct from the ‘Thou’ of the Son and of the Spirit. It undermines the biblical witness to the elements of the doctrine of the Trinity to plead the unity … of essence as in any way impinging upon or inconsistent with the reality of the distinctive self-consciousness of the persons in reference to one another … One can hardly avoid the suspicion of a unitarian bias in the failure to appreciate distinguishing self-consciousness in the three persons of the Godhead.4

I concur, and would urge, in spite of the reservations which some modern theologians have expressed regarding the term, that until another term comes along which serves the church better, the church should continue to employ the term “person” to designate and to distinguish between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as real and distinct self-conscious Egos within the Godhead.

The Relation of the Three to the One

What is the relation of the three Persons in the Godhead to the one divine essence? This is admittedly an extremely complex matter.

The Trinitarian creeds (Nicene, Niceno-Constantinopolitan), in conformity with Scripture, teach that there is only one God (Deut 6:4; Isa 45:5; Rom 3:30; 1 Cor 8:4; 1 Tim 2:5; Jam 2:19). They also teach, again in conformity with Scripture, that three Persons have eternally existed in the Godhead, namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19; John 14:16–26; 15:26; 16:5–15; 1 Cor 12:3–6; 2 Cor 13:14; Gal 4:4–6; Eph 1:3–14; 2:18; 4:4–6; Titus 3:4–6; 1 Pet 1:2; Jude 20–21; Rev 1:4). So whatever we say with respect to this matter we must be careful to preserve both God’s oneness (his numerically single, indivisible, and immutable eternal being) and his threeness (his eternal tri-personality).

This means, first, since each Person of the Godhead is fully God, that each Person has the entire fulness of God’s being in himself (see Col 2:8). We must not think of the three Persons as each occupying a third of God’s being. Being God as each is, each Person possesses the one whole being of God. This means that the three Persons taken together are not to be regarded as a greater divine being than any one of the Persons viewed singly and also that any one of the Person viewed singly is not to be regarded as a lesser divine being than when the three are viewed together. This means also that each Person possesses all of the attributes of the one God, or to say this differently, each Person possesses the entire undivided being of God.5

This means, second, because the three Persons are as real and eternal as the one divine being which each possesses is real and eternal, that we must conceive of the Persons as distinct (not separate) “egos,” with each possessing his own distinguishing incommunicable property which differentiates him from the other two. It is commonly said that the Father’s distinguishing property is his paternity or fatherhood, the Son’s distinguishing property is his filiation or sonship, and the Spirit’s distinguishing property is his spiration or procession.

This representation of the “one” and the “three” does not mean that the Trinity is a contradiction. The creeds of the church have been jealous to avoid the very appearance of contradiction by employing the one noun—”God” or “Godhead”—with the numeral “one” and the second noun—”Persons”—with the numeral three. The church has always taught that “in the unity of the Godhead there are three persons” (Westminster Confession of Faith, II/iii). Thus when the Bible refers to “the Father,” “the Son,” and “the Holy Spirit,” it intends that we think of the three Persons. When it refers to “God,” it refers either to the triune Godhead construed in its unitary wholeness (see Gen 1:26) or to one of the persons of the Godhead, specifically which one to be determined by the context. Thus construed, the triune God is a complex Being but not a contradiction!

This means, third, that while we must affirm, if we would be faithful to Scripture, that each Person is a distinct Person, nevertheless, because of the reality of their sameness in divine essence (the famous Nicene ὁμοούσια, homoousia), we can never properly think of the three Persons as existing independently of each other. God the Father is eternally “the Father of the Son” and God the Son is eternally “the Son of the Father” while God the Holy Spirit is eternally “the Spirit of God [the Father]” and “the Spirit of Christ [the Son].”

Describing then the oneness of the Trinity, that oneness pertaining to their divine essence, we should speak of the sameness of their “substance,” “essence,” “being” or “nature.” That is to say, each Person possesses the one divine substance, essence, being, or nature. For example, each Person is essentially omniscient, that is, each knows all things (Father, 1 John 3:20; Son, Matt 11:27; Holy Spirit, 1 Cor 2:11). But designating the distinctions between the self-conscious Egos themselves, we should employ “persons” (or “hypostases”) to underscore the truth that there are real self-conscious, subjective differentia in the depth of the one divine Being that correspond to the titles Father, Son, and Spirit.

Some critics have argued that the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity cannot avoid tritheism, the view that the Trinity is not one God but three Gods. But is this true? I think not, for every form of real tritheism requires three separable and distinguishable Gods, that is to say, one could be eliminated without impinging upon the “godness” of the others in any way. But if any one of the three “centers of self-consciousness” within the Trinity were to be eliminated from the Godhead, that elimination would rend the unity of the Godhead asunder and immediately and directly necessitate eliminating data from the knowledge of the other two, which in turn would impinge upon their omniscience which is immutable. Simply the immutable, shared omniscience possessed by the three Persons of the Godhead means that all tritheistic separability is out of the question. So we must affirm that there is only one divine being and that each Person of the Godhead possesses this one entire divine being, a Unity in Trinity and a Trinity in Unity.

The Father’s Eternal Generation of the Son

We take up now the extremely difficult matter concerning the Nicene distinction between the Father and the Son by means of its doctrine of eternal generation, which doctrine Louis Berkhof defines approvingly as “that eternal and necessary act of the first person in the Trinity, whereby he, within the divine Being, is the ground of a second personal subsistence like his own, and puts this second person in possession of the whole divine essence, without any division, alienation, or change.”6

The Ancient and Medieval Meaning

We must begin by making clear what the Nicene Fathers intended by their phrases “begotten out of the Father,” “out of the being [οὐσίας, ousias] of the Father” and “God out of God, Light out of Light, very God out of very God.” From personal investigation, I have discovered that many evangelical pastors who use the last expression “very God of very God” from their pulpits as a description of Christ believe that the phrase is simply a literary convention, on the analogy of the phrases “King of kings” and “Lord of lords,” to denote the superlative degree. Only slight reflection, however, will show that if this were the intention of the phrase, the second occurrence of “God” would have to be plural with a lower case “g,” making then the attached “very” inappropriate. Since this is not the way the phrase is turned, it should be obvious that the phrase is not intended merely to exalt the Son above all the false gods which men fashion and worship.

The phrase is, of course, Nicene. And when the Nicene Fathers employed the phrase, they did so in order to distance the church from Sabellianism—a very proper and commendable concern. They were saying that the Father and the Son possess distinguishing properties (ἰδιότητες, idiotētes] which will not allow “Father” and “Son” simply to be revelational modes by which the “one undifferentiated divine Monad” manifested himself to his creation (the modalistic heresy). The Father is alone unbegotten, they said. The Son, however, is begotten by the Father and that by an act of eternally continuing generation on the part of the Father but in such a sense that the Son is being “begotten, not made.” What does all this mean precisely? It means that these Fathers taught that the Father is the Source of the Son and that the Son derives his essential being as God from the Father (see their “out of the being of the Father”) through an eternal “always continuing, never completed” act of begetting on the Father’s part. In sum, the Father alone has being from himself; the Son eternally derives his being from the Father. In both Nicene and Post-Nicene times, this doctrine of the Father’s eternal generation of the Son was supported by four arguments in the main: (1) the very titles “Father” and “Son” were said to imply that the Father generates the Son; (2) the term μονογενής, monogenēs, (John 1:14, 18; 3:16; 1 John 4:9) was thought to teach that the Father begat the Son; (3) John 5:26, expressly declaring that the Father who has life in himself “gave to the Son also to have life in himself,” was thought to teach that the Father communicates the divine essence to the Son; and (4) 1 John 5:18b—”the one who was begotten by God keeps him”—was said explicitly to teach that the Son was generated by the Father.7

With regard to the first argument, the titles “Father” and “Son” must not be freighted respectively with the occidental ideas of source of being and essential superiority on the one hand and of subordination and dependency on the other. Rather, they should be viewed in the biblical sense as denoting, first, sameness of nature and, in Jesus’ case, equality with the Father with respect to his deity (see John 10:30–36), and second, infinite reciprocal affection.8 Regarding the second, there is a general consensus among scholars today that μονογενής, monogenēs, does not mean “only begotten,” alluding to some form of generation, but rather “one and only” or “only one of a kind” or “unique.”9 Warfield, for example, writes: “The adjective ‘only begotten’ conveys the idea, not of derivation and subordination, but of uniqueness and consubstantiality: Jesus is all that God is.”10 As for the third, a consensus has by no means been reached among theologians and commentators that the words of John 5:26 refer to an ontological endowment. It is entirely possible, indeed, much more likely, that they refer to an aspect of the incarnate Son’s messianic investiture. John 5:22–23 which precedes the verse refers to his designated authority to judge, clearly an aspect of his Messianic role, and so is the similar thought of 5:27 which follows it. Accordingly, 5:26, paralleling 5:27, seems to be giving the ground upon which the Son is able to raise the dead, namely, it is one of the prerogatives of his Messianic investiture.11 With regard to the fourth argument, it is not at all certain that 1 John 5:18b teaches that the Father eternally generates the Son. Raymond E. Brown, for example, discusses five interpretations which have been proposed by scholars for the relevant statement, opting finally himself for the idea that “the one who was begotten of God” refers to the Christian whom God enables to keep himself.12 Even those who contend that the phrase refers to Jesus (and most translators opt for this view) must acknowledge that it is not certain that John had an essential begetting in mind. In fact, of the many commentators I consulted, not one who applied the phrase to Jesus argued that John was referring to the Father’s eternal generation of the Son. The only conclusion that one can fairly draw from this data is that Scripture provides little to no clear warrant for the speculation that the Nicene Fathers made the bedrock for the distinguishing properties of the Father and the Son. In fact, when they taught that the Father is the “source” (ἀρχή, archē, or fons), “fountain” (πηγή, pēgē) and “root” (ῥίζα, rhiza) of the Son and that the Son in turn is God out of (ἐκ, ek) God, that is, he was begotten out of the being of the Father by a continuing act of begetting on the Father’s part, they were, while not intending to do so, virtually denying to the Son the attribute of self-existence, an attribute essential to deity. There were exceptions among the Fathers, such as Cyril and the later Augustine, who did not teach so.

The Nicene Fathers were satisfied that they had carefully guarded the full deity of the Son by their affirmation of the homoousia and by their insistence that the Son was “begotten not made.” And no doubt his deity was guarded. But their language (“out of the being of the Father,” “God out of God”), regardless of their commendable intention to distance the church from Sabellianism by it, suggests the Son’s subordination to the Father not only in modes of operation but also in a kind of essential subordinationism in that he is not God of himself. And this became by and large the doctrine of the church and it went unchallenged for well over a thousand years.

The Reformation Qualification

In the sixteenth century John Calvin contended against all subordination of the Son to the Father with respect to his divine essence in his debates with the heretic Valentinus Gentilis who contended that the Father alone is αὐτόθεος, autotheos—”God of himself,” and with Michael Servetus the Unitarian. Citing Augustine, Calvin writes:

Christ with respect to himself is called God; with respect to the Father, Son. Again, the Father with respect to himself is called God; with respect to the Son, Father. In so far as he is called Father with respect to the Son, he is not the Son; in so far as he is called the Son with respect to the Father, he is not the Father; in so far as he is called both Father with respect to himself, and Son with respect to himself, he is the same God.

Calvin then concludes from this:

Therefore, when we speak simply of the Son without regard to the Father, we well and properly declare him to be of himself; and for this reason we call him the sole beginning. But when we mark the relation that he has with the Father, we rightly make the Father the beginning of the Son. (Institutes, I.xiii.19, emphasis supplied)

What Calvin affirms here is that the Son with reference to himself is God of himself,13 but in relation to his Father, he derives his hypostatic identity from his relation to the Father. In this relational sense, Calvin is willing to speak of the Father’s “begetting” the Son (see Institutes, I.xiii.7, 8, 18, 23, 24). Calvin also declares, in that the New Testament employs the divine name Yahweh as a titular ascription of Christ, that all that is implied in this name, including self-existence, is true no less of the Son than of the Father (Institutes, I.xiii.23).14 Furthermore, while Calvin will say that the term “God” is sometimes applied to the Father “because he is the fountainhead and beginning of deity—and this is done to denote the simple unity of essence” (Institutes, I.xiii.23), he explains that what he means by his phrase “the beginning of deity” is “not in the bestowing of essence… , but by reason of order” (Institutes, I.xiii.26). Therefore, he will “admit that in respect to order … the beginning of divinity is in the Father” (Institutes, I.xiii.24). So there is no question that Calvin espoused the doctrine of the Son’s eternal generation as being true with respect to his hypostatic identity, that is, with respect to his Sonship, and he employed the doctrine to distinguish between the Father and the Son as to their order, but he did not espouse the doctrine as being true with respect to the Son’s divine essence. And he concluded his treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity by declaring that the ancient speculation that the “eternal generation” of the Son always continues was of “little profit,” unnecessarily “burdensome,” “useless trouble,” and “foolish”:

… while I am zealous for the edification of the church, I felt that I would be better advised not to touch upon many things that would profit but little, and would burden my readers with useless trouble. For what is the point in disputing whether the Father always begets? Indeed, it is foolish to imagine a continuous act of begetting, since it is clear that three persons have subsisted in God from eternity. (Institutes, I.xiii.29)

Not wanting the heretic Valentinus Gentilis to be able to declare that he, with his insistence on the self-existence of the Son, was in any way out of accord with the ancient church’s creedal tradition, Calvin writes in the Preface to his Expositio impietatis Valen. Gentilis (1561):

… the words of the Council of Nice run: Deum esse de Deo. A hard saying [dura locutio], I confess; but for removing its ambiguity no one can be a more suitable interpreter than Athanasius, who dictated it. And certainly the design of the fathers [he could have Cyril and Augustine particularly in mind here] was none other than to maintain the origin which the Son draws from the Father in respect of Person, without in any way opposing the sameness of essence and deity in the two, so that as to essence the Word is God absque principio [without beginning], while in Person the Son has His principium [beginning (but with reference to order)] from the Father.

By his phrase “A hard saying” Calvin seems to have meant that “the form of the statement is inexact—the term Deus requiring to be taken in each case of its occurrence in a non-natural personal sense—and that, being inexact, it is liable to be misused in the interests of a created God,”15 which is what the heretic Gentilis was teaching. He may also have intended to suggest that a less ambiguous way (he specifically states that there is “ambiguity” about it) should have been chosen of saying that the Son draws his origin with respect to his Person from the Father than the harsh locution Deus de Deo which certainly is capable of being misunderstood as teaching that the Son owes his divine essence to the Father. But in either case, it is quite clear that Calvin, speaking elsewhere of the Creed’s “battology,”16 was willing to be critical of the language of the Nicene Creed and doubtless some of the understanding lying behind it!

Calvin’s successors at Geneva, Theodore Beza and Josiah Simler, as well as a whole mass of representative Reformed teachers, such as Danaeus, Perkins, Keckermann, Trelcatius, Tilenus, Polanus, Wollebius, Scalcobrigius, Altingius, Grynaeus, Schriverius, Zanchius, Chamierus, Zadeel, Lectius, Pareus, Mortonus, Whittaker, Junius, Vorstius, Amesius, Rivetus, and Voetius all taught that Christ is properly to be called αὐτόθεος, autotheos. It is surely the presence of such a mass of representative Reformed teachers that led Gerald Bray to state that

the Protestant Reformers, in spite of their links with the Augustinian tradition,… had a vision of God which was fundamentally different17 from anything which had gone before, or what has appeared since.18

And one of the ways their “fundamentally different” view of God is to be distinguished from the past, according to Bray, was precisely their belief that “the persons of the Trinity are equal to one another in every respect,”19 a position, Bray says, which, though rooted in the Athanasian Creed, had been qualified in the medieval tradition to mean that “the Father was recognized as the source of divinity in a way that the other two persons were not.”

More recent Reformed opinion

Since the days of the Reformation many respected Reformed theologians have discussed this doctrine and Calvin’s handling of it. Some Protestant churchmen, such as George Bull and John Pearson, have written defenses of the Trinitarian statements of the Nicene Creed. Here is what three American Reformed theologians have written about Nicea and Calvin’s treatment of the Trinity:

Charles Hodge. Hodge, Princeton Theological Seminary’s nineteenth-century systematician, declares that exception must be taken, not to the facts themselves of both the subordination of the Son and the Holy Spirit to the Father and the nature of the Son’s eternal generation, but to the Nicene Fathers’ explanations of them.20 He explains what he means this way:

… the fathers who framed [the Nicene] creed, and those by whom it was defended, did go beyond [the] facts [of Scripture concerning the Son’s subordination to the Father as to the mode of subsistence and operation]. They endeavored to explain what was the nature of that subordination.… they still spoke of the Father as the Monas, as having in order of thought the whole Godhead in Himself; so that He alone was God of Himself (αὐτόθεος, autotheos, in that sense of the word), that He was the fountain, the cause, the root … of the divinity as subsisting in the Son and Spirit; that He was greater than the other divine persons.…

… It is no doubt a Scriptural fact that the relation between the First and Second Persons of the Trinity is expressed by the relative terms Father and Son. It is also said that the Son is begotten of the Father.… The relation, therefore, of the Second Person to the First is that of filiation or sonship. But what is meant by the term, neither the Bible nor the ancient creeds explain. It may be sameness of nature.… It may be likeness.… It may be derivation of essence.… Or, it may be something altogether inscrutable and to us incomprehensible.

The Nicene fathers, instead of leaving the matter where the Scriptures leave it, undertake to explain what is meant by sonship, and teach that it means derivation of essence. The First Person of the Trinity is Father, because he communicates the essence of the the Godhead to the Second Person; and the Second Person is Son, because He derives that essence from the First Person. This is what they mean by Eternal Generation. Concerning which it was taught,—

1. That it was the person not the essence of the Son that was generated. The essence is self-existent and eternal, but the person of the Son is generated (i. e., He becomes a person) by the communication to Him of the divine essence. This point continued to be insisted upon through the later periods of the Church.

(Hodge’s points 2 through 5 follow on the next page.)21

With respect to the Reformers’ attitude toward these Nicene speculations, Hodge writes:

The Reformers themselves were little inclined to enter into these speculations. They were especially repugnant to such minds as Luther’s. He insisted on taking the Scriptural facts as they were, without any attempt at explanation.… 22

Calvin also was opposed to going beyond the simple statement of the Scriptures.23

After citing a lengthy passage in the Latin (as he was wont to do) from Calvin’s Institutes, I.xiii.19–20, Hodge concludes:

We have here [that is, in Calvin’s understanding of the Trinity] the three essential facts involved in the doctrine of the Trinity, namely, unity of essence, distinction of persons, and subordination without any attempt at explanation.24

Benjamin B. Warfield. Warfield, Princeton Theological Seminary’s early-twentieth-century theological giant, asserts in his essay on Calvin’s doctrine of the Trinity:

Although [Calvin] taught that the Son was begotten of the Father, and of course begotten before all time, or as we say from all eternity, he seems to have drawn back from the doctrine of “eternal generation” as it was expounded by the Nicene Fathers. They were accustomed to explain “eternal generation”… not as something which has occurred once for all at some point of time in the past … but as something which is always occurring, a perpetual movement of the divine essence from the first Person to the second, always complete, never completed. Calvin seems to have found this conception difficult, if not meaningless.25

As proof of his assertion, Warfield cites Calvin’s own closing words in Institutes, I.xiii.29, the words which I cited above. Warfield also states in a second article:

Under the leadership of Athanasius this doctrine [the Triune God, one in being, but in whose unity there subsists three consubstantial Persons] was proclaimed as the faith of the church at the Council of Nice in 325 a.d., and by his strenuous labors and those of “the three great Cappadocians,”… it gradually won its way to the actual acceptance of the entire church.… The language [of the later so-called Athanasian Creed] still retains elements of speech which owe their origin to the modes of thought characteristic of the Logos-Christology of the second century, fixed in the nomenclature of the church by the Nicene Creed of 325 a.d., though carefully guarded there against the subordinationism inherent in the Logos-Christology, and made the vehicle rather of the Nicene doctrines of the eternal generation of the Son and procession of the Spirit, with the consequent subordination of the Son and Spirit to the Father in modes of subsistence as well as of operation.… It has been found necessary … from time to time, vigorously to reassert the principle of equalization, over against a tendency unduly to emphasize the elements of subordinationism which still hold a place thus in the traditional language in which the church states its doctrine of the Trinity. In particular, it fell to Calvin, in the interests of the true Deity of Christ—the constant motive of the whole body of Trinitarian thought—to reassert and make good the attribute of self-existence (autotheotēs) for the Son. Thus Calvin takes his place, alongside of Tertullian, Athanasius, and Augustine, as one of the chief contributors to the exact and vital statement of the Christian doctrine of the Triune God.26

Then, commenting approvingly on Calvin’s doctrine of the Trinity in the first article cited, Warfield writes:

The principle of [Calvin’s] doctrine of the Trinity was not the conception he formed of the relationship of the Son to the Father and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son, expressed respectively by the two terms “generation” and “procession”; but the force of his conviction of the absolute equality of the Persons. The point of view which adjusted everything to the conception of “generation” and “procession” as worked out by the Nicene Fathers was entirely alien to him. The conception itself he found difficult, if not unthinkable; and although he admitted the facts of “generation” and “procession,” he treated them as bare facts,27 and refused to make them constitutive of the doctrine of the Trinity. He rather adjusted everything to the absolute divinity of each Person, their community in the one only true Deity; and to this we cannot doubt that he was ready not only to subordinate, but even to sacrifice, if need be, the entire body of Nicene speculation. Moreover, it would seem at least very doubtful if Calvin, while he retained the conception of “generation” and “procession,” strongly asserting that the Father is the principium divinitatis [beginning of divinity], that the Son was “begotten” by Him before all ages and that the Spirit “proceeded” from the Father and the Son before time began, thought of this begetting and procession as involving any communication of essence. His conception was that, because it is the Person of the Father which begets the Person of the Son, and the Person of the Spirit which proceeds from the Persons of the Father and the Son, it is precisely the distinguishing property of the Son which is the thing begotten, not the essence common to Father and Son, and the distinguishing property of the Spirit which is the product of the procession, not the essence which is common to all three persons.28

Finally, Warfield asserts,

the direct Scriptural proof which had been customarily relied upon for [the] establishment [of the Nicene Fathers’ doctrine of “eternal generation”], [Calvin] destroyed, refusing to rest a doctrinal determination on “distorted texts.” He left, therefore, little Biblical evidence for the doctrine … , except what might be inferred from the mere terms ‘Father,’ ‘Son’ and ‘Spirit,’ and the general consideration that our own adoption into the relation of sons of God in Christ implies for Him a Sonship of a higher and more immanent character, which is His by nature.… Certainly other explanations of these facts are possible.… 29 Nothing, meanwhile, could illustrate more strikingly the vitality of the ecclesiastical tradition than that in such a state of the case the Nicene construction of the Trinity held its ground: held its ground with Calvin himself in its substantial core, and with the majority of his followers in its complete speculative elaboration.30

Here Warfield draws a distinction between the Nicene tradition’s “substantial core” which he says Calvin held (with which conclusion I agree) and the tradition’s “complete speculative elaboration” which he says the majority of Calvin’s followers continue to hold. That is to say, Calvin rejected that body of speculation in the Nicene tradition respecting the doctrine of the Trinity which would have included, as Warfield stated earlier, the ancient Fathers’ conception of a continuing “generation” and “procession” entailing the ongoing communication of essence from the Father to the Son and from the Father and the Son to the Holy Spirit. At this point in his exposition of Calvin’s doctrine, Warfield strikingly acknowledges what for him are three “astonishments”:

We are astonished at the persistence of so large an infusion of the Nicene phraseology in the expositions of Augustine, after that phraseology had really been antiquated by his fundamental principle of equalization in his construction of the Trinitarian relations: we are more astonished at the effort which Calvin made to adduce Nicene support for his own conceptions: and we are more astonished still at the tenacity with which his followers cling to all the old speculations.31

While it was never Calvin’s intent to create a party—he simply wanted to reform the church by restoring a scriptural theology in it—Warfield observes that Calvin’s position, nevertheless, marking an epoch in church history,

did not seem a matter of course when he first enunciated it. It roused opposition and created a party. But it did create a party: and that party was shortly the Reformed Churches, of which it became characteristic that they held and taught the self-existence of Christ as God and defended therefore the application to Him of the term ἀυτόθεος [autotheos]; that is to say, in the doctrine of the Trinity they laid the stress upon the equality of the Persons sharing the same essence, and thus set themselves with more or less absoluteness against all subordinationism in the explanation of the relations of the Persons to one another.32

Warfield had elaborated upon this “aroused opposition” earlier in this same essay in these words:

… strange as it may seem, theologians at large had been accustomed to apply the principle of consubstantiality to the Persons of the Trinity up to Calvin’s vigorous assertion of it, with some at least apparent reserves. And when he applied it without reserve it struck many as a startling novelty if not a heretical pravity. The reason why the consubstantiality of the Persons of the Trinity, despite its establishment in the Arian controversy and its incorporation in the Nicene formulary as the very hinge of orthodoxy, was so long in coming fully to its rights in the general apprehension was no doubt that Nicene orthodoxy preserved in its modes of stating the doctrine of the Trinity some remnants of the conceptions and phraseology proper to the older prolationism of the Logos Christology,33 and these, although rendered innocuous by the explanations of the Nicene Fathers and practically antiquated since Augustine, still held their place formally and more or less conditioned the mind of men—especially those who held the doctrine of the Trinity in a more or less traditional manner. The consequence was that when Calvin taught the doctrine in its purity and free from the leaven of subordinationism which still found a lurking place in current thought and speech, he seemed violently revolutionary to men trained in the old forms of speech and imbued with the old modes of conception, and called out reprobation in the most unexpected quarters.34

John Murray. Murray, professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, states regarding Calvin’s view of the “catholic” doctrine of the Father’s eternal generation of the Son:

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 of 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 homoousion 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’ (θεὸν ἀληθινὸν ἐκ θεοῦ ἀληθινοῦ [theon alēthinon ek theou alēthinou]). No doubt this expression is repeated by orthodox people without any thought of suggesting what the evidence derived from the writings of the Nicene fathers would indicate the intent to have been. This evidence shows that the meaning intended is that the Son derived his deity from the Father and that the Son was not therefore αὐτόθεος [autotheos]. It was precisely this position that Calvin controverted with vigour. He maintained that as respects personal distinction the Son was of the Father but as respects deity he was self-existent (ex se ipso). This position ran counter to the Nicene tradition. Hence the indictments levelled against him. It is, however, to the credit of Calvin that he did not allow his own more sober thinking to be suppressed out of deference to an established pattern of thought when the latter did not commend itself by conformity to Scripture and was inimical to Christ’s divine identity.35

I would suggest, therefore, with Calvin and these American theologians, that Christians should not believe that the Father, through an eternal act of begetting in the depth of the divine being that is always continuing, is begetting the Son’s essential being as God out of his being, which act thereby “puts this second person in possession of the whole divine essence.”36 They should believe, rather, that the Son, with respect to his essential being, is wholly God of himself (αὐτόθεος, autotheos). They should also believe that the Son, as the second Person of the Godhead, derives his hypostatic identity as the Son from the “generated” relation “before all ages” which he sustains to God the Father, the first Person of the Godhead (what this means beyond “order” I cannot say and will not attempt to say), and that the Father precedes the Son by reason of order. This means that there is no essential subordination of the Son to the Father within the Godhead.


Consumed as the Nicene Council was with working out the doctrine of the person of the Son over against the claims of the Arians, it said nothing about the Holy Spirit beyond the simple declaration that the Church believed in him. It was but natural that until the Church had settled the issue of the deity and personal subsistence of the Son it could not make much progress regarding the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. This lack was addressed at the Council of Constantinople in 381 a.d. when, in addition to addressing the teaching of Apollinaris (or –ius) which damaged the full humanity of Christ, it declared against the Arian and Semi-Arian parties who were teaching that just as the Father had created the Son so also the Son had created the Spirit,37 that the Church believes “in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [τό ἐκ τοῦ πατρὸς ἐκπορευόμενον, to ek tou patros ekporeuomenon], who, with the Father and Son, is worshiped and glorified, who spoke through the prophets.” By the phrase “who proceeds from the Father” (the Vulgate had translated the Greek with qui a Patre procedit) the Council intended to point out the unique property (ἰδιότης, idiotēs) of the Spirit which distinguished him from the Father and the Son, and by this confession it meant to say that just as the Son is essentially, necessarily, and eternally generated by the Father, so also the Spirit essentially, necessarily, and eternally proceeds from the Father. The later doctrine of the Double Procession—that the Spirit proceeds also from the Son—can be traced back to Hilary, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine and was current at Rome in the fifth century with Pope Leo I declaring it an aspect of the orthodox faith.38 It is also reflected in the et Filio in verse 23 of the fifth-century Athanasian Creed. Accordingly, the Third Council of Toledo in 589 a.d. proclaimed it a tenet of orthodoxy and may have had the words “and the Son” (Lat. filioque) inserted in the third article of the Creed, reflecting Western Christianity’s anti-Arian theology by announcing in the fact of the Spirit’s procession from both the Father and the Son the latter’s co-equality with the Father.39 Louis Berkhof approvingly defines the Holy Spirit’s “spiration” as “that eternal and necessary act of the first and second persons in the Trinity whereby they, within the divine Being, become the ground of the personal subsistence of the Holy Spirit, and put the third person in possession of the whole divine essence, without any division, alienation or change.”40

The actual scriptural ground for this doctrine, beyond the names of the Persons of the Godhead, is quite slight at best. The New Testament teaches that the Father and the Son “send” (John 14:26, πέμψει, pempsei, 15:26, πέμψω, pempsō, 16:7, πέμψει, pempsei) the Holy Spirit, and that the Son “breathed” (John 20:21, ἐνεφύσησεν, enephysēsen) and “poured out” (Acts 2:17, ἐκχεῶ, ekcheō; 33, ἐξέχεεν, execheen) the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. But these expressions are descriptive of the Father’s and the Son’s soteric activity as well as the Spirit’s operational submission to them in the economy of redemption and not of an inscrutable mysterious process transpiring eternally within the Trinity. In fact, only one verse in the entire New Testament even remotely approaches such a teaching, namely, John 15:26, which contains the phrase, “who is coming forth [παρὰ … ἐκπορεύεται, para … ekporeuetai] from the Father.”41 But even here, the much more likely meaning, in accordance with John 14:26, is that the Spirit “comes forth from the Father” into the world on his salvific mission of witnessing to Jesus Christ. B. F. Westcott, commenting on this verse, declares:

The original term ἐκπορεύεται [ekporeuetai] may in itself either describe proceeding from a source, or proceeding on a mission. In the former sense the preposition “out of” (ἐκ, ek) would naturally be required to define the source (Rev. i.16, etc.); on the other hand the preposition “from” (παρά, para) is that which is habitually used with the verb “to come forth” [ἐξέρχομαι, exerchomai] of the mission of the Son, e. g. xvi.27, xvii.8. The use of the latter preposition [παρά, para] in this place [15:26] seems therefore to show decisively that the reference here is to the temporal mission of the Holy Spirit, and not to the eternal Procession.… it is most worthy of notice that the Greek Fathers who apply this passage to the eternal Procession instinctively substitute ἐκ, ek, for παρά, para, in their application of it.42

Alfred Plummer concurs:

It seems best to take this much discussed clause as simply yet another way of expressing the fact of the mission of the Paraclete … there seems to be nothing in the word [ἐκπορεύεσθαι, ekporeuesthai] itself to limit it to the Eternal Procession. On the other hand the παρά, para, is strongly in favour of the reference being to the mission.43

J. H. Bernard writes:

Here [in John 15:26 ἐκπορεύεσθαι, ekporeuesthai] is used … of the Spirit “coming forth” from God in His mission of witness. To interpret the phrase of what is called “the Eternal Procession” of the Spirit has been a habit of theologians … But to claim that this interpretation was present to the mind of Jn. would be to import into the Gospel the controversies and doctrines of the fourth century. [The clause] does not refer to the mysterious relationships between the Persons of the Holy Trinity, but only to the fact that the Spirit who bears witness of Jesus Christ has come from God.44

H. R. Reynolds declares:

[John 15:26] is the great text on which the Western Church and the Greeks have alike relied for their doctrine concerning the “procession of the Spirit,” the timeless, pre-mundane relations among the Personalities of the Godhead.… There are those … who urge that these passages do not bear at all upon the internal relations of the Godhead, but simply refer to the temporal mission of the Holy Spirit … and much may be said in favour of this view. If this verse does not furnish the basis of an argument, there is no other which can be advanced to establish the view either of the Eastern or Western Church.45

Raymond E. Brown concurs with these studied opinions, as do F. F. Bruce, Leon Morris, and J. I. Packer.46 And D. A. Carson declares:

The procession of the Spirit was understood [by the creed of Nicaea and of Constantinople] in metaphysical terms, i. e. this clause was understood to refer to the Spirit’s ontological relationship with the Father, not to the mission on which he was sent. [But] it is almost certain that the words ‘who goes out from the Father’, set in synonymous parallelism with ‘who I will send to you from the Father’, refer not to some ontological ‘procession’ but to the mission of the Spirit.47

Loraine Boettner writes:

In the original Greek [of John 16:28] the phrase “came out from,” which is here used of Jesus, is stronger than the “proceedeth from” [in 15:26], which is used of the Spirit; yet the context of John 16:28 makes it perfectly clear that what Jesus said of Himself had reference to His mission and not to what is commonly termed His eternal generation; for His coming forth from the Father into the world is contrasted with His leaving the world and going back to the Father. We are, of course, told that the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father and by the Son; but the mission as He comes to apply redemption is an entirely different thing from the procession. It seems much more natural to assume that the words of John 15:26, which were a part of the Farewell Discourse, and which were, therefore, spoken within the very shadow of the cross, were not philosophical but practical, designed to meet a present and urgent need, namely, to comfort and strengthen the disciples for the ordeal through which they too were soon to pass … Hence, John 15:26, at best, carries no decisive weight concerning the doctrine of the procession of the Spirit, if, indeed, it is not quite clearly designed to serve an entirely different purpose.48

With this basic conclusion I am in essential accord. Therefore, I would suggest that Christians should not believe that the Holy Spirit, through an eternal act of proceeding in the depth of the divine being that is always continuing, is continually proceeding out of the Father and the Son as to his essential being as God, which act thereby “puts the third person in possession of the whole divine essence.”49 They should believe, rather, that the Holy Spirit, with respect to his essential being, is wholly God of himself (αὐτόθεος, autotheos). They should also believe that the Holy Spirit, as the third Person of the Godhead, derives his hypostatic identity as the Holy Spirit from his “spiration” “before all ages” from God the Father, the first Person of the Godhead, and God the Son, the second Person of the Godhead (what this means beyond “order” and how spiration differs in nature from generation I cannot say and will not attempt to say except to assert that the former is from both the Father and the Son and the latter is from the Father alone), and that the Father and the Son precede the Holy Spirit by reason of order. This means that there is no essential subordination of the Spirit to the Father and the Son within the Godhead.


As I bring this chapter to a close, I would offer two cautions. First, I would insist, precisely because the Bible advocates the existence of the one tri-personal Deity, that the three Persons of the Godhead do necessarily exist and that they have distinguishing properties that are real, eternal, and necessary. Indeed, without these distinguishing personal properties there would be no Trinity. The distinguishing property of the Father is paternity (paternitas) from which flow “economical” activities which are unique to his paternity; the Son’s is filiation (filiatio) from which flow “economical” activities which are unique to his filiation; and the Holy Spirit’s is spiration (spiratio) from which flow “economical” activities which are unique to his spiration, all descriptions which can be justified by Scripture. But I would also insist that the church must be extremely cautious in asserting what these distinguishing properties mean lest we go beyond Scripture. There can be no question that in his paternity the Father is the Father of the Son. But we must not attempt to define, beyond the fact of the clearly implied order, a modal “how” of the Father’s paternity. And there can be no question that the Son is the Son of the Father. We know that his Sonship means that he is equal with the Father with respect to deity (John 5:18; 10:33–36), and we also know that as the Son he is to be distinguished from the Father with respect to his personal property of filiation (John 1:1–3, 18). We know also that his Sonship implies an order of relational (not essential) subordination to the Father (which is doubtless what dictated the divisions of labor in the eternal Covenant of Redemption) in that it is unthinkable that the Son would have sent the Father to do his will. But beyond this we dare not go. We must not attempt to define, beyond the fact of the clearly implied order, a modal “how” of the Son’s filiation. It is enough to know that the Scriptures affirm that the titles “Father” and “Son” speak of a personal, differentiating manifoldness (that is, real “subjective conscious selves”) within the depth of the divine Being.

Finally, there can be no question that the Holy Spirit is a divine Person who is both the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ (Rom 8:9), and that he “proceeded” or “came forth from” the Father and the Son (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:7; 20:22) at Pentecost on his salvific mission of bearing witness to the Son. But we must not attempt to define, beyond the fact of the clearly implied order, a modal “how” of the Spirit’s spiration. It is enough to know that the Scriptures affirm that this title distinguishes a third subjective conscious self in the depth of the divine Being. So I would suggest that it was not in their concern to distinguish between the persons of the Godhead that the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers made their mistake. Not at all. That task had to be undertaken in the face of the Sabellian heresy which denied any real personal distinctions between them. Where they made their mistake was in their speculative attempts to explain how it is that the Son “became” the Son of the Father and how it is that the Spirit “became” both the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ. The explanations that were generally offered (there were clear exceptions here such as Cyril and Augustine) have the Son acquiring his essence and personal subsistence from the Father through an eternally continuing act of being begotten and the Spirit acquiring his essence and personal subsistence from the Father and the Son through an eternally continuing act of proceeding from both of them. But in doing so they went beyond Scripture and concluded to formulations that in effect make God the Father alone autotheotic and that deny to the Son and the Spirit their self-existing autotheotic nature—the very opposite effect to the dominant intention which governed them throughout their labors and which led them to affirm the doctrine of the ὁμοούσια, homoousia, in their attempt to write a statement that defended the one undivided and unabridged deity of all three Persons of the Godhead.

Second, I would caution that these two early creeds are not evangelical creeds, that is, creeds explicating soteric matters. They were framed in the context of the Trinitarian debates in the fourth century and are underdeveloped respecting and virtually silent on soteriological matters. As has been often pointed out, there is nothing in them that the Judaizers whom Paul confronted in his letter to the Galatians could not also have endorsed. Nevertheless, Paul condemned the Judaizers in the strongest terms possible because they were preaching “another gospel which is not another” when they corrupted his doctrine of justification by faith alone. Quite obviously, according to Paul there is no saving value in holding to an “orthodox view” of God as Trinity if one is at the same time also holding to an “unorthodox” view of the saving work of the Trinity.

Herman Bavinck, professor of theology at the Free University of Amsterdam, has rightly observed in this regard that “the Reformation has brought to light that not the mere historical belief in the doctrine of the trinity, no matter how pure, is sufficient unto salvation, but only the true heart-born confidence that rests in God himself, who in Christ has revealed himself as the triune God.”50 So one must clearly see that there is a danger in reciting even the revered, time-honored, truth-laden Apostles’ Creed if one assumes that by simply believing its tenets one is thereby necessarily saved. For it is possible to believe the Apostles’ Creed, as well as all the other Trinitarian creeds, but believe at the same time that if one would go to heaven when he dies he must still put an “and” or a “plus” of his own good works after the triune God’s saving work. But he who would trust in God’s saving work plus his own “good works” that presumably possess some merit before God has, according to Paul, made Christ’s cross-work, as the Judaizers did before him, of no value to him (ὑμᾶς οὐδὲν ὠφελήσει, humas ouden ōphelēsei, Gal 5:2); he has been alienated from Christ (κατηργήθητε απὸ Χριστοῦ, katērgēthēte apo Christou, 5:4a); he has fallen away from grace (τῆς χάριτος ἐξεπέσατε, tēs charitos exepesate, 5:4b); he has abolished the offense of the cross (κατήργηται τὸ σκάνδαλον τοῦ σταυροῦ, katērgētai to skandalon tou staurou, 5:11); he is trusting in a “different gospel which is no gospel at all” (1:6–7), and he is doing so at the peril of his soul, because he shows thereby that he has never been truly regenerated by the Holy Spirit (or he would submit to the teaching of Holy Scripture in the matter of salvation51) but is still lost in his sin.

1 See Chapter Sixteen, 583–601, for my discussion of the theological and historical antecedents leading up to the Council and the Council’s proceedings.

2 John Calvin, Institutes, I.xiii.5.

3 John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982), 4:278.

4 Murray, Collected Writings, 4:278–79.


The Cappadocian doctrine known as the περιχώρησις, perichōrēsis (Lat. equivalent, circumincessio) (the doctrine of the ontological interpenetration of Persons or mutual co-inherence or indwelling of the three Persons within the Godhead)—thought to be taught by Jesus in his declaration: “The Father is in me, and I [am] in the Father” (10:38; see 14:10, 11; 17:21)—teaches that this mutual indwelling is a vital characteristic of the divine unity. While the doctrine is necessarily true, given simply the fact that the triune God is one divine being, I would caution that it is not entirely clear from the John context that our Lord intended to speak of this ontological interpenetration between the persons of the Father and the Son when he said this. How could Jesus’ contemporaries, simply by observing his works, have deduced the doctrine of the ontological coinherence or interpenetration of the Persons of the Godhead? They could, however, have deduced from an observation of his miraculous works that his ministry was in accord with the Father’s will and enjoyed the Father’s blessing and therefore that the Father was in some sense in union with Jesus and that Jesus was in some sense in union with the Father.

Then when Reformed theologians interpret the preposition ἐν (en) in Paul’s ἐν Χριστῷ, en Christō, phrase and his Χριστὸς ἐν ὑμῖν, Christos en humin, phrase (Col 1:27), the same preposition found in John 10:38, do they not consistently say that Paul’s phrases speak of the Christian’s vital spiritual union with Jesus Christ? Would any say that the phrases speak of a mutual ontological coinherence or interpenetration of persons one with the other? When Jesus prayed that all of his people “may be one, Father, just as [καθὼς, kathōs] you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us” (John 17:21), and when he stated that the glory the Father had given him he had given to his people “that [ἵνα, hina] they may be one just as [καθὼς, kathōs] we are one” (John 17:22), would any say that he was teaching that Christians would eventually know a mutual ontological coinherence or interpenetration of persons with each other or with the Godhead? Do Reformed theologians not say that he was praying for the church’s observable spiritual oneness in purpose, in love, in action in this world?

Whatever one may finally decide about the doctrine of the perichōrēsis (which I accept, not because of John 10:38, but because of the unitary oneness of God), one still has sufficient warrant in the Bible’s teaching that the three Persons (Matt 28:19), each fully God (Col 2:8), are still one God (Rom 3:30; 1 Cor 8:4; 1 Tim 2:5; James 2:19) to affirm the three Persons’ numerically identical essence.

6 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 94.

7 Francis Turretin in his Institutes of Elenchtic Theology (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1994), Third Topic, Question XXIX, argues that the doctrine is also taught in and proven by Psalm 2:7, Proverbs 8:22–31, Micah 5:2, Colossians 1:5 and Hebrews 1:3. His exegesis, however, is more assertive than probative, more scholastic than biblical.

8 See Benjamin B. Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity,” The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield (Reprint: Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), V:278, fn. 136.

9 It should be noted in passing that if Jesus had been Mary’s “only” biological son, as Roman Catholicism avers, Luke could have informed his readers of this fact by using μονογενής, monogenēs, in Luke 2:7 just as he did in Luke 7:12, 8:42, and 9:38. As it is, however, he employed πρωτότοκος, prōtotokos, meaning “firstborn,” implying that she had other children after she gave birth to Jesus.

10 Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Person of Christ,” Works, II:194; see also Dale Moody, “God’s Only Son: The Translation of John 3:16 in the Revised Standard Version,” Journal of Biblical Literature LXXII (1953), 213–19; and Richard N. Longenecker, “The One and Only Son,” in The Making of the NIV (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 117–24.

11 See Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, n. d.), I:470–71.

12 Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John (AB) (New York: Doubleday, 1982), 620–22.

13 I concur, but when I say that the three Persons of the Godhead are “of themselves” I do not mean that they possess the quality of aseity independently of each other. That would imply tritheism. What I mean is that, in that each is fully God, they share the quality of aseity which inheres in the one divine essence.

14 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, I:467, declares Calvin’s argument here to be “conclusive.”

15 Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity,” Works, V:249.

16 In his dispute with Peter Caroli Calvin refers to the Nicene Creed’s “battology,” not to controvert the words but simply to make it clear to all that he did not feel “confined to the very words of the old formulas in his expression of the doctrine of the Trinity” (Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity,” Works, V:210–11).

17 “Fundamentally different” is probably a bit strong. “Different in some respects” would be truer as a description, I think.

18 Gerald Bray, The Doctrine of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1993), 197.

19 Bray, The Doctrine of God, 200.

20 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, I:468. Quite interestingly, both Hodge (Systematic Theology, I:462) and Warfield drew a distinction between the Nicene Creed as such and the theology of the Nicene Fathers who produced it (Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity,” Works, V:250). By drawing this distinction both Hodge and Warfield give their endorsement to the Creed as written while at the same time calling into question some of the doctrinal thinking of the Nicene Fathers that lay behind some of the Creed’s particular formulations. I find this distinction somewhat strange, to say the least. A creed will normally contain the doctrine and reflect the theology of those who compose it. This means in the present case that if one would be critical of the Nicene Fathers’ doctrine in certain areas, he ought to be equally critical of those formulations which are the products of that doctrine should they appear in the Nicene Creed.

21 Hodge, Systematic Theology, I:465, 468, emphasis supplied.

22 See Martin Luther’s comment on Psalm 2:7, for example, in What Luther Says, compiled by Ewald M. Plass (St. Louis, Mo.: Concordia: 1959), 1387, entry 4469.

23 Hodge, Systematic Theology, I:466.

24 Hodge, Systematic Theology, I:466–67, emphasis supplied.

25 Benjamin B. Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity,” Works, V:247, emphasis supplied.

26 Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity,” Works, II:170–71, emphasis supplied.

27 What Calvin meant by his use of the terms was the idea of order, that is to say, that the Father with respect to hypostatic order is, as the Father, the “beginning of deity” and that the Son was “begotten” by the Father with respect to hypostatic order.

28 Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity,” Works, V:257–58, emphasis supplied.

29 For these explanations, see Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity,” Works, V:278, fn. 136.

30 Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity,” Works, V:277–79; for evidence of this assertion, see 277, fn. 135.

31 Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity,” Works, V:279, emphasis supplied.

32 Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity,” Works, V:251, emphasis supplied.

33 The “prolational” remnants of the conceptions and phraseology of the Logos Christology that Warfield says were preserved in Nicene orthodoxy were preserved, in my opinion, precisely in the following series of “eternal generation” phrases of the Nicene and Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creeds: “begotten out of [ἐκ, ek] the Father … , that is, out of [ἐκ, ek] the essence [οὐσίας, ousias] of the Father” (The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of a.d. 381 eliminates this explanatory phrase beginning with “that is” and substitutes for that phrase the phrase “from all eternity.”), “God out of [ἐκ, ek] God,” “Light out of [ἐκ, ek] Light,” “true God out of [ἐκ, ek] true God.”

34 Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity,” Works, V:233, emphasis supplied. Opposition during the Reformation Age came from Romanists (primarily), some Lutherans and later from some Arminians.

35 John Murray, “Systematic Theology, “ Collected Writings (Edinburgh, Banner of Truth, 1982), 4:8, emphasis supplied. Murray cites in a footnote on the same page evidence from Athanasius’ Expositio Fidei “where it is clearly stated that the Father has being from himself … whereas the Son derives his Godhood [θεότης, theotēs] from the Father.… See also his De Decretis Nicaenae Synodi, paragraphs 3 and 19.”

36 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 94.

37 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Fifth revised edition of the original 1910 publication; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), III:663.

38 In his letter, Quam laudabiliter, to the Spanish bishop Turibius of Asturica, dated July 21, 447, Leo I, following an earlier Latin tradition, declared that he wanted to see the doctrine of the double procession of the Spirit affirmed at a council to be held in Toledo. See Enchiridion Symbolorum (ed. by Denzinger and Schönmetzer), 284.


The filioque clause, adopted officially at Rome around 1017, has continued to this day to be a major difference between Western Christendom and the Eastern churches which reject it because it was endorsed by the Third Council of Toledo without consulting with or seeking the theological insights of a broader ecumenical gathering. This clause contributed to the prevention of the reunion of the churches in 1274 and 1439.

The Patriarch Photius of Constantinople, who reigned 864 to 867 and 880 to 886, added after the words “from the Father” the word “alone” in his exposition of the Cappadocian theology because, first, John 15:26 refers to the Spirit proceeding only from the Father, and second, the Double Procession tends to fuse the Father and the Son into one archē, giving rebirth to either semi-Sabellianism or ditheism. Other Eastern theologians have added a third and fourth reason, namely, third, the Double Procession no longer allows the Person of the Father as the sole source of the Son and the Spirit to be the ground of unity within the Godhead but must ground the Persons’ unity in the divine essence which they share, thereby overshadowing by the divine essence the diversity of the Persons and thus depersonalizing the Trinity and turning God into an abstraction; fourth, because the Spirit is thus subordinated to the Son, he has been neglected in the west and the Western church thereby regards itself too much as an institution of the world, governed in terms of earthly power and centralized jurisdiction. This in turn contributed to papal authority in the west. In my opinion, only the first of these four reasons has any real merit. It is quite a reach, to say the least, to contend that the Double Procession leads to Sabellianism, depersonalizes the Trinity, and contributes through neglect of the Spirit to papal authority in the west.

40 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 97.

41 John Calvin writes a lengthy treatise on the Trinity in his Institutes, I.xiii, as we have already indicated. But while it is replete with discussion of Christ’s deity and autotheotic character, I can find only two allusions to the Spirit’s procession from the Father (1.xiii.17, 18). Turretin in his Institutes of Elenchtic Theology, Third Topic, Question XXXI, advances even less biblical evidence for this doctrine than he did for the Father’s eternal generation of the Son (which was virtually nil). Here he refers to John 15:26; 16:7, 13–15; 20:22; Galatians 4:6. But again, his exegesis is slight, to say the least, and at every point assumes the position he wishes to prove. The Spirit’s coming forth or being sent in these verses actually has reference to his salvific mission in this world and not to an intra-Trinitarian relationship.

42 B. F. Westcott, The Gospel According to St. John (1881; reprint, Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1962), 224–25 (emphasis supplied).

43 Alfred Plummer, The Gospel According to St. John (1882; reprint, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1981), 288–89.

44 J. H. Bernard, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. John (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1928), 2:499.

45 H. R. Reynolds, The Gospel of John (reprint of The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 17, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1962 ), 2:276 (emphasis supplied). .

46 Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (xiii-xxi) (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1970), 29a:689; F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 316; Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 683 (see also his comment in New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Academie: 1986), 265, fn. 18: “…[ἐκ]πορεύεται [(ek)poreuetai] in [John 15:26] is not describing the eternal relations between the Persons of the Trinity, but referring to the sending of the Spirit into the world after the departure of the Son.”); J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1973), 59.

47 D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 528–29.

48 Loraine Boettner, Studies in Theology (Phillipsburg, N. J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1985, eighteenth printing), 123.

49 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 97.

50 Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God, translated by William Hendriksen (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1951), 285.

51 In light of John 4:41–42, 8:47, 1 Thessalonians 2:13, and 1 John 4:9–10, the Westminster Confession of Faith, XIV/ii, reminds us that the Christian who has saving faith “believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein.”

Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, Lectures Delivered at Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Mo. and Knox Theological Seminary, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Nashville: T. Nelson, 1998), 317.

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