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Balancing Sola Scriptura and Catholic Trinitarianism (Matthew Barrett)

This past Fall I had the privilege of contributing to the Midwestern Journal of Theology, a publication of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where I am Associate Professor of Christian Theology. In the latest issue, “The Reformation and Related Controversies,” a host of outstanding contributors participate, including Octavio Esqueda, Thomas Johnston, Michael Haykin, Alan Thompson, Jason Duesing, and others.

I contributed two articles, the first being a short “theological commentary” called “What is sola scriptura?” and the second being a long article titled, “Balancing Sola Scriptura and Catholic Trinitarianism: John Calvin, Nicene Complexity, and the Necessary Tension of Dogmatics.” This article was originally presented at ETS (2017). The article begins:

The formal principle of the Reformation was never relegated to geographical isolation. Transcending French, Swiss, Italian, British, and German borders, sola scriptura became an epistemological dividing line that would be uniquely articulated by countless reformers, even if it was most officially heard first in Wittenberg in the years leading up to 1521. In part, the unification of the reformers around biblical authority proved to be a foundational pillar supporting the evangelical fortress Rome repeatedly attempted to demolish.

Such demolition, Rome would learn, was sometimes just as effective from the inside as from the outside. Implosion hovered over the Reformation as reformers often struggled to cooperate with one another, not only internationally but all too often within their own national ranks. It became painfully conspicuous that though each reformation trumpeted sola scriptura, its application could be frustratingly variegated. For instance, consider the iconoclast controversy. The early Luther took a relatively mild approach to images in and outside churches, but in Zurich every image was a remnant of idolatry; the walls of the church had to be whitewashed. Sola scriptura may have been the epistemic nucleus of the Reformation, but it was simultaneously the dynamite that threatened implosion as few Reformers could agree on the specifics of its ecclesiastical entailments.

Such a nagging incongruity is not merely apparent from reformer to reformer, but the dialectic we speak of is equally present within any given reformer’s own theology. Cranmer, for example, labors (struggles?) to determine the relationship between sola scriptura and allegiance to king or queen; certainly, the nature of his martyrdom demonstrates the triumph of the former.

If Cranmer’s application of the formal principle is forged in the fires at the stake, Calvin’s matures in the study and at synods as he is thrust into controversy over the orthodoxy of his trinitarianism. The absence of an extensive trinitarian statement in the Geneva confession, his mixed reception of orthodox vocabulary and creeds, his unique interpretation of eternal generation, and his immovable defense of the Son’s aseity would result in a firestorm of accusations that lasted from the first edition to the last edition of his Institutes. So intense was the firestorm that Calvin would be accused on several occasions of heresy, both in the direction of Arianism and Sabellianism.

Such a controversy may be the most surprising of the sixteenth-century. If any name is associated with theological rigor, lucid precision, and uncompromising adherence to sola scriptura over against the lure of speculation, it is John Calvin’s. Nevertheless, Calvin would be entangled within a trinitarian debate that not only brought into question the fidelity of his Nicene orthodoxy, but shook the foundation of his biblicism, a biblicism so often revered for its preservation of divine mystery and methodological determination to resist trespassing beyond revelation itself. Unexpectedly, Calvin was caught between the proverbial rock of biblical authority and the “hard place” of the trinitarian tradition.

For that reason, poking at the tension between Calvin’s affirmation of sola scriptura and his contested trinitarianism is, ironically enough, a way of answering a much larger question: How do we balance sola scriptura with catholicity? The Trinity is the perfect lens through which to look for an answer to such a question. Nowhere is dogmatics so difficult than when the theologian dares to journey within the mystery of the Trinity and seek to define the infinite essence of a God who is triune.

Upon first instinct, such an approach may seem odd. Is not an appeal to scripture inherent in biblical trinitarianism? Does not orthodoxy, by definition, assume consistency with the biblical witness? Yet debates pre- and post-Nicaea have long revealed that the question is a complex one. Unlike other doctrines, orthodox trinitarianism rests not on a proof text, or two, but on the synthesizing of biblical assertions, as well as deciding what conclusions logical follow from such assertions. The line between heresy and orthodoxy is a thin one precisely because citing biblical texts makes little headway; heretic and orthodox alike appeal to the same network of proof texts. Essential, even necessary, then, is the science and art of dogmatics, the ability to locate not merely that which is “expressly set down in Scripture,” but the “good and necessary consequence” to be “deduced from Scripture,” to cite the Westminster Confession of Faith’s statement on scriptural sufficiency.

While it will be necessary to briefly review Calvin’s debates with certain opponents, others have offered extensive summaries and evaluations, most recently Brannon Ellis, assessing not merely the debates but Calvin’s own trinitarianism and its modern reception. Our task, rather, is far more hermeneutical. Few have attempted to determine how Calvin’s trinitarianism sheds light on his theological method, a method that holds sola scriptura in the right hand and subscription to traditional, orthodox vocabulary in the left hand, without forfeiting either one. While we will begin by pulling back the layers of controversy, layers that will aid us in understanding the motives of Calvin’s decision making, our definitive objective is to observe Calvin’s trinitarian inclinations, even motivations, in order to determine how Calvin approached the dialectic between biblical authority and Nicene orthodoxy. Ultimately, Calvin will be but a foil, permitting us to draw out the repercussions for contemporary dogmatics. …

Read the rest of this article today in the Midwestern Journal of Theology.

Matthew Barrett is Associate Professor of Christian Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. He is the author of several books, including Salvation by GraceOwen on the Christian LifeGod’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scriptureand Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary. Currently he is the series editor of The 5 Solas Series with Zondervan. You can read more at

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