Skip to content

Calvin, Classical Trinitarianism, and the Aseity of the Son

Brannon Ellis. Calvin, Classical Trinitarianism, and the Aseity of the Son. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Review by Tyler R. Wittman–

In the church’s early fight against “Arianism” and Sabellianism, the faith’s defenders in the pro-Nicene tradition shared a strategy of distinguishing between essence-appropriate and relation-appropriate language in Trinitarian theology – two ways of speaking that are part of what we may call a “grammar of triunity.” Exemplars include Basil of Caesarea (Against Eunomius) and Augustine (De Trinitate 5-7), both of whom attended carefully to such a grammar. At its heart, Brannon Ellis’s book is an exploration of a tension he discerns between this grammar and the church’s exposition of the Son’s eternal generation. Specifically, he points up the incongruity between this ruled Trinitarian grammar and the tradition’s almost unanimous violation of this distinction when describing the eternal generation of the Son as a “communication of essence.” This latter definition seems to collapse the two ways of speaking, thus describing God’s undivided essence comparatively. Intriguingly, Ellis proposes that we best understand John Calvin’s infamous assertion of the Son’s aseity as a self-conscious attempt at consistently employing this pro-Nicene grammar.

Through an examination of Calvin’s writings and his debates with orthodox trinitarians like Pierre Caroli and antitrinitarians like Valentine Gentile, Ellis argues that Calvin strove to distinguish essential and relative predication in articulating the triunity of God, thus articulating a formal distinction between the Son being God and the Son being Son. When Calvin affirmed that the Son is autotheos (God-of-Himself), he denied that the Son possesses aseity as he possesses it from the Father, rather the Son simply possesses aseity because he possesses the same essence as the Father. Such a conclusion is nothing more than an implication of a strict, ruled trinitarian grammar: as God and thus according to his essence, the Son is autotheos; as Son and thus according to his person, the Son is from the Father. But the Son is neither from the Father according to his essence nor autotheos according to his person. This helps to show how Calvin did not reject the doctrine of eternal generation, as some have misinterpreted him; he simply objected to what he saw as an illegitimate understanding of the manner of eternal generation—namely, as essential communication.

Nevertheless, Calvin’s own view eventually became the “minority” view within the Reformed tradition. Before addressing this, Ellis outlines the traditional functions of the doctrine of eternal generation and draws out the root distinction between trinitarian and unitarian ways of addressing the triunity of God. Here Ellis maps two broadly antithetical methods of construing immanent divine plurality and unity, under which he groups the approaches to the Son’s aseity he discusses. The first method is that of identification, where essential and relative language are more or less collapsed into one another and thus the same. The second method is to distinguish essential and relative language as two ways of speaking about the same reality.

While within the first method, there were unitarians who simply ruled out any distinction in God, there were also “loose” methods of identification. Ellis discusses two such “loose” approaches to the Son’s aseity, represented by the Remonstrants and Roëllians (Herman Alexander Roëll and his followers). Simply put, both camps conflate essential and personal language while inevitably privileging one over the other; Remonstrants privileged the persons, while Roëll privileged the essence. For the Remonstrants, the name “Son” by necessity implies some subordination to the “Father.” Episcopius took this to mean that the Son possesses the essence of God derivatively from and thus with less dignity than the Father. Taking the other route and privileging the essence, Roëll effectively elevated a concept of aseity (drawn from natural theology) above God such that he denied any procession within God. Yet at the same time Roëll and his followers maintained personal distinctions, albeit shorn of relations of origin and any taxis with regard to modes of subsistence or working.

Ellis next addresses the two Reformed traditions after Calvin from within the second method discussed above, that of “distinction.” On one hand, there is the “mainstream” Reformed tradition, which distinguished essential and relative language with a significant degree of tension. Fundamental to these theologians was an account of aseity as “external, essential independence” (159). All three persons of the Trinity possess such external, essential independence—but they possess it differently in accordance with their mode of subsistence. On the whole, they said the Son is the same God as the Father by a hyperphysical, eternal communication of essence, and therefore autotheos (e.g. Voetius, Zanchi, de Moor). The mainstream theologians differed from their Roman Catholic and Lutheran peers by substituting the “self-subsistence” of the Father alone for the “aseity” of the Father alone. On this reckoning, only the Father is autotheos of himself, whereas the Son is autotheos from the Father. On the other hand, the “minority report” followed Calvin’s emphases and applied the essence/relation distinction more strictly. These theologians demurred from the idea of essential communication while still maintaining personal processions and taxis within God’s immanent life (e.g. Trelcatius, Keckermann, Maccovius). Ellis argues that the difference between the two traditions was not only in how strictly they distinguished essential and relative language, but also the degree to which prior ontological commitments resolved any tension between the two ways of speaking. While Ellis does not touch upon it directly at length, it is tempting to ask whether the two traditions gave different roles to reason and analogy in trinitarian theology. Further, as a matter of history that begs explanation, it is curious that Calvin’s successors in Geneva (Beza, Turretin) fell into the mainstream approach.

Ellis’ concluding argument for constructive dogmatics contains some valuable insights that stem from his reflections on ruled Trinitarian speech and the inconsistency involved in any account of the processions that involves essential communication. Among them is a critique of how theologians speak of and ground the pactum salutis (covenant of redemption). For several theologians, the distinct roles assumed by the Trinity in the economy are grounded in voluntary decisions made in eternity such that the distinguishing properties and characteristics of the persons are, in effect, an economic undertaking. But if this is the case, then what role does the immanent Trinity play for such theologians, who are unwittingly closer to Roëll than anything in the tradition? The same critique is extended to those who speak about the Son, as God, obeying the Father. In Ellis’s estimation, whatever else such views are, they represent an unwelcome violation of ruled trinitarian language, collapsing the essential and the relative as well as the immanent and the economic. Despite these welcome insights, I am yet to be convinced of the infelicity of describing eternal generation as a “communication of essence”—though much depends on what this phrase means. Perhaps the greatest weakness in Ellis’ final argument is the virtual absence of any sustained exegetical engagement with the primary Scriptural loci and interpretive issues that have pressured theologians to use such language. But he is aware of his study’s modest scope, which is really to open up the question and suggest that the resources for answering it lie within the tradition itself.

As a reading of Calvin and various Reformed theologians, Ellis succeeds in clarifying several difficult questions and presenting us with a compelling reading of Calvin’s doctrine of the Trinity. This is thus an admirable guide through some of the deepest and most daunting issues in all of dogmatics that helps us pay careful attention to the wisdom of saints who have gone before us—a welcome achievement in itself. This book deserves an audience with serious students of Calvin, the Reformed tradition, and trinitarian theology more generally.

Tyler R. Wittman, King’s College, University of Aberdeen

Did you enjoy this book review? Read others like it in the most recent issue of Credo Magazine:

To view the Magazine as a PDF {Click Here} 

The Trinity and the Christian Life: Why a triune God makes all the difference

One of the dangers every church faces is slipping, slowly and quietly and perhaps unknowingly, into a routine where sermons are preached, songs are sung, and the Lord’s Supper is consumed, but all is done without a deep sense and awareness of the Trinity. In other words, if we are not careful our churches, in practice, can look remarkably Unitarian. And such a danger is not limited to the pews of the church. As we leave on Sunday morning and go back into the world, does the gospel we share with our coworker look decisively and explicitly Trinitarian in nature? Or when we pray in the privacy of our own home, do the three persons of the Trinity make any difference in how we petition God?

In this issue of Credo Magazine, we have brought together some of the sharpest thinkers in order to bring our minds back to the beauty, glory, and majesty of our triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But we do not merely want to see him as triune, but recognize why and how the Trinity makes all the difference in the Christian life. Therefore, in this issue Fred Sanders, Robert Letham, Michael Reeves, Scott Swain, Tim Challies, Stephen Holmes, and many others come together in order to help us think deeper thoughts about how God is one essence and three persons, and what impact the Trinity has on who we are and what we do as believers.

Matthew Barrett, Executive Editor

Back to Top