Brannon Ellis, Calvin, Classical Trinitarianism, and the Aseity of the Son (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). viii + 250 pp. Hardcover.
Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw
The growing body of literature on Trinitarian theology often bypasses the period of Reformed orthodoxy. Calvin is a partial exception to this rule. However, contemporary authors frequently isolate him from his historical context within the developing Reformed tradition. Brannon Ellis treats Calvin’s contribution to the doctrine of self-existence of the Son as it relates both to Reformed orthodoxy and to contemporary theology. He corrects many appropriations and misappropriations of Calvin on this important theme. The question that he treats is how the divine attribute of aseity, or self-existence, relates to the doctrine of eternal generation, in which the Father begets the Son from all eternity. This is an issue that many continue to raise and which has caused great confusion and controversy in recent decades. This book is complex and requires some level of expertise to follow adequately, but it is a superb study that this reviewer cannot praise highly enough, both for its historical clarity and contributions to contemporary theology.
Ellis regards Calvin as neither undermining nor merely assenting to classical Trinitarian language, but developing it in a more consistent manner (7). He proposes two aims for his book: “My historical aim is to explain the autothean controversies’ basic significance for the classical Trinitarian tradition and its heirs. . . . My theological aim is not to denounce or undermine classical Trinitarianism, but to summon the heirs of this tradition – from within it – to consistency at this particularly significant pivot of thought and speech about the Triune God” (10-11).
While much of the language of historic Trinitarian theology appears complex and at times speculative, the matter of ultimate importance is whether it agrees with the Word of God. Both Ellis and Calvin share this concern. In light of the importance of the question of the aseity of the Son to Trinitarian theology, this review will sketch the arguments of each chapter of this work, including critical interaction where needed.
Chapter 1 examines Calvin’s teaching on the aseity of the Son. He believed that the Father eternally communicated personal subsistence to the Son, but that he did not communicate the divine essence to him. He taught that terms such as eternal generation applied to personal subsistence only, or to the relationship of the persons to each other, but not to the Godhead. Orthodox Trinitarians opposed Calvin’s teaching. They were willing to accept the aseity of the Son in a certain sense: “An adjectival attribution of aseity to the Son was acceptable, because he eternally is the Son who is essentially self-existent. But as an adverbial attribution – that he is self-existently God – was unintelligible, because he eternally possesses the self-existent divine essence by generation from the Father” (34). It is important to recognize that communication of the divine essence does not mean that the Father was the origin of the Son’s divinity. Most classical Trinitarians rejected the idea of origin with regard to the divine nature. This reviewer has found in his own research that most Reformed orthodox authors believed that the Father eternally communicated both deity and personal subsistence to the Son on the grounds that deity and personal subsistence cannot be abstracted from one another. The idea was that the Son must possess all divine attributes, including self-existence, but that the person who is eternally begotten is a divine person. The Son has both personal subsistence and self-existence in perfect equality with the Father by eternal generation. This alternative view will be important in the discussion below.
Chapter 2 traces the theological context of Calvin’s views on the aseity of the Son. Ellis’s primary contention is that his teaching in this area developed positively upon orthodox Trinitarian theology rather merely responding to “antitrinitarian heterodoxy” (38). Pierre Carol objected to Calvin’s teaching on the grounds that his views bordered on both Arianism and Sabellianism (42-43). Arians denied that Christ was God equal with the Father, which Carloli believed that the only way for the him to be fully divine was through possessing the same essence as the Father through eternal generation. Sabellianism taught that God was one person who manifested himself in three different ways. Caroli leveled this seemingly contradictory accusation simultaneously to that of Arianism because he believed that removing communication of essence from eternal generation resulted in denying the personal distinction between the Father and the Son.Calvin responded that it is equally inappropriate to deny that the Son is from the Father in relation to his personal subsistence as it is “to say that he is from the Father with respect to his essence” (46-47).
Ellis then turns to Calvin’s controversies with antitrinitarians such as Valentine Gentile. The fact that Calvin’s opponents criticized him of treating the divine essence a quaternity in that stood apart from the three persons (53) illustrates the difficulty that both orthodox and heterodox writers had with understanding his position. The question of quaternity was prominent in the Middle Ages. It entailed the idea that the divine essence was a fourth thing in the Trinity that the three persons shared among themselves rather than making the divine nature inherent to the divine persons. Both sets of opponents believed that Calvin abstracted the divine essence from the personal subsistences in the Godhead. The chapter concludes by arguing that Calvin’s modifications to the idea of the aseity of the Son was his attempt to harmonize classical trinitarian language and distinctions.
Chapter 3 examines historically the theological functions of the doctrine of eternal generation. Ellis helpfully reduces these functions to five categories: eternal generation secures personal distinction in the Godhead (70-78), taxis or order among the persons (78-83), consubstantiality (83-96), equality (96-97), and perichoresis or mutual indwelling (97-98). This is the clearest summary of the historical function of eternal generation that this reviewer has read. Ellis then argues that using eternal generation to undergird consubstantiality and equality “oversteps the boundaries of ‘irreducible threeness’ to which it belongs” (99). His contention is that eternal generation defines the distinction and interrelationship between the divine persons rather than their common divine essence. He adds that communication of essence inappropriately attempts to explain “the ineffable manner of divine generation.”
This reviewer tentatively raises two objections against these arguments in favor of the majority Reformed orthodox view. First, Ellis’s assertions unintentionally abstract divine personality from divine essence. The persons in question are divine persons, not personal abstractions within the divine essence. While this goes beyond the scope of this review, the New Testament consistently treats the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as divine persons, and it depicts the one true God as three persons. The divine nature is not something that the persons have, but it is what they are. If personal subsistence comes from the Father, then Godhead must come with it, yet in a way that neither implies inequality nor subordination. When the Father begets the Son through eternal generation, he begets a divine person rather than a personal quality of the generic divine nature. This was why Calvin’s opponents accused him of teaching a quaternity in the Godhead. Second, it is inaccurate to say that communication of essence contradicts the orthodox view that the manner of eternal generation is “ineffable.” Eternally communicating the divine essence from Father to Son without diminishing the self-existence of the Son is definable, but it is still ineffable. Calvin’s view still provides an “explanation” of the nature of eternal generation, albeit an eternal one. This question is ultimately incomprehensible, but to some extent it seems to be unavoidable.
Chapter 4 outlines the terms of the autothean debate and later post-Reformation approaches to this question (103). Ellis treats “five Trinitarian approaches” to the Son’s aseity (109). He introduces this section with the Catholic apologist, Robert Bellarmine’s, defense of Calvin’s orthodoxy as a trinitarian (109-112). The five approaches include the Remonstrants, Roell, the Roman Catholics and Lutherans, “the Reformed mainstream,” and “the Reformed minority report.” This chapter and the next two examine each of these views (112).
Chapter 5 introduces Belarmine’s rebuttal of Calvin’s position on the aseity of the Son (139-145), even though he believed that Calvin stood within orthodoxy. He next treats the Lutheran rejection of Calvin’s teaching (146-151). Ellis observes that some Lutheran theologians accused Calvin of Judaizing because he bypassed the Trinity in classic Trinitarian passages in his commentaries and because he rarely found Christ in the Old Testament (148). In terms of Reformed authors, Ellis examines the writings of Girolomo Zanchi, Gisbertus Voetius, and Bernardinus de Moor (153). These men defended Calvin’s view regarding the Son’s aseity, but they modified it as well. They contended that the Son possessed self-existence as a divine attribute, but that he possessed this attribute through eternal communication from the Father. This did not mean that the Father was the origin of the Son’s deity, but that the Son is eternally divine through communication of the divine attributes from the Father. He concludes, “The most important thing to garner about the character of the mainstream Reformed advocacy of Calvin’s language is that the Son is autotheos or self-existent God understood quite strictly in in terms of external essential independence” (159).
In order to represent the Reformed minority who followed Calvin (chapter six), Ellis selected Lucas Trelcatius, Bartholomaeus Keckermann, and Johannes Maccovius (174). Ellis contends that essential communication from the Father to the Son is not necessary to affirm eternal generation (176). Keckermann questioned whether we should speak of essential communication at all (184). He believed that the idea of essential communication was improper, but not unorthodox. He concluded that debates over communication of essence were more semantic than substantive (187). Maccovius criticized the Arminians as having Socinian tendencies by making a distinction in the deity of the Father and the Son (191). His point was that any essential difference between the Father and the Son amounted to difference in nature.. He argued that claiming that the Son is God self-existently did not deny “his divine filiation” (192).
Herman Alexander Roell provoked an increased bias against Calvin’s minority view (196). The reason was while that he affirmed that God was one in essence and three in persons, he denied the eternal order of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the Godhead. As a result, Ellis concludes, “Before it had a chance to take root and to flower, the environment within which this Reformed minority approach was to grow up had become inhospitable.” Until Roell, Reformed writers were less suspicious of the minority position, though the continued to defend Calvin’s orthodoxy. This highlights the fact that the differences between these views are minor.
The last chapter (seven) includes Ellis’s constructive theological conclusions. He argues that aseity is a positive rather than a privative concept (199). Saying that God is self-existent is more than simply saying that he is uncaused (201). This means that aseity does not allow for possessing deity by communication. This reviewer has argued above why this is not necessarily the case. Ellis argues that communication of the divine attributes among the persons in not necessary to affirm eternal generation. He argues this point well, even though this reviewer leans in favor of the Reformed majority viewpoint. Ellis adds that the Son is the true God “without reserve” in the distinct mode of his subsistence (205). While this statement is true, communication of essence does not imply any “reserve” in regard to the Son’s full deity. This would be true only if the Father was the origin or source of the Son’s deity. Pages 222-226 treat the often neglected subject of the Trinity in relation to the covenant of redemption. This section is worth consulting for theological reflection. Ellis concludes that Calvin’s teaching on the aseity of the Son and eternal generation potentially resolves tensions within orthodox Trinitarianism by picking and choosing elements within that tradition (226). Whether or not this is true, his study reminds readers that while there are clearly defined lines between orthodox Trinitarianism and heresy, we must hold to some of our conclusions regarding the nature of eternal generation humbly and tentatively.
This brilliant book is complex and requires undistracted concentration to read profitably. However, it clarifies a complex historical debate about eternal generation that continues to have practical implications in the church. Some at the present day have been accused of rejecting eternal generation when they have adopted Calvin’s position. Others claim to teach Calvin’s view, but go beyond Calvin by rejecting historic Christian creeds. Ellis wonderfully helps readers discern what lies in the realm of orthodoxy. All readers should walk away from this book concluding that we have known the edges of God’s ways and we have gained a glimpse of his back parts only.
The preceding review was first published in Mid America Journal of Theology (2013). Used with permission.