Why did God reveal the doctrine of the Trinity?

Among the objections to the doctrine of the Trinity raised by our Mormon brothers, some may be dealt with quickly.  They say that it is nonsense, but that is certainly not true.  Substantial unity is logically distinct from personal unity, and the fact that the two are isomorphic for humans does not prove that they must be so for God.  That we cannot really imagine what it would mean for a single intelligent being to have three personal “centers” is true but irrelevant.  All of the divine attributes are ultimately unimaginable to us, including those we think most self-explanatory–his omniscience (we cannot imagine knowledge that is not limited in being mediated by concepts) and omnipotence (we cannot imagine creating beings out of nothing, so that their entire existence is a participation in one’s own).  Nevertheless, we can have some abstract idea what it means to be omnipotent, omniscient, and tripersonal.

A more serious objection, raised multiple times by Bruce Charlton, is that the doctrine is unnecessary to our relationship with God, that it does nothing practically for simple believers but create confusion.  We orthodox Christians obviously do not accept this.  The dogma of the Trinity we hold to have been revealed to us by God, and when God tells us something, it’s because we need to know it.  In fact, the dogma of the Trinity vouchsafes for the orthodox what we think is the proper understanding of God’s greatest and most important promise to us–that through Christ He makes us His own sons.  Misunderstanding the nature of God opens one to disastrous misunderstandings of this promise.

First, appreciate the audacity of this promise by seeing the ontological chasm it claims to cross.  This is not like, say, Superman deciding to adopt Jimmy Olsen.  Kal-El may have many superior abilities to humans, but fundamentally Kryptonians and humans are on the same ontological level, so such an adoption wouldn’t be anything special.  No, this is more like me claiming that I’m going to adopt my pet fish as my beloved son.

Why would that be silly?  It makes sense to say that I take very good care of my fish, helping it to attain the highest level of fishly excellence.  It would even make sense–although it would be odd–to say that I love and cherish my fish.  But I can’t claim to want for my fish what I would want for my son–namely the things I would want for myself:  the excellence of my own human nature, virtue, honor, manhood.  A son I will try to raise to my own level (or, rather, the level I aspire to).  Not just for him to be well-kept like a pet, but for him to know and will as I know and will.  This sort of relationship is possible because a father and son share the same nature.

So God wishes to make us, in some sense, godlike.  However, this opens up another possible misunderstanding.  In the case of human filiation, it is natural that a son ultimately becomes a man, at which point he is equal to and independent of his father.  But God is the single source of all being, and it is absurd and impious to imagine that we shall ever–even in a future divinized state–become independent of Him and “move out of the house” as it were.  It is also metaphysical nonsense to imagine divinity as a type that could have multiple instantiations.

It is an error to imagine that God will merely perfect us as humans, and it is an error to imagine that we can ever have divinity independent of Him (even if He is the one who at first gives it to us).  Both errors make the same mistake of imagining that our beatitude is something other than God Himself, that He is merely a necessary means to some other fulfillment–human or “divine” (with divinity falsely considered apart from the One God).  However, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church insist with one voice that God Himself is our final happiness, and not any exterior good or even any good of the body or soul.

How, though, can we become like God while still relying on God?  After all, God is the “unmoved mover”; being independent and having no principles prior to Him are very fundamental divine qualities.  We are not God, we are finite, because we must rely on Him for our being.  So the serpent reminded Adam and Eve when he promised that to become like God, they had to break off from God and become principles unto themselves.

But the Enemy only spoke part of the truth.  We are not God because we are not the source, but also because we are not entirely receptive.  If a being were entirely open to God’s giving, it could receive the entirely of His being; it would be God Himself.  We are finite because as receptacles of the divine inflow, we are too brittle; we can take in so very little.  We are in a way like the finite real numbers, which are finite because they are situated between two infinities:  positive infinity (the infinity of primacy–the infinity of the Father) and negative infinity (the infinity of perfect receptivity–the infinity of the Son).  If Adam and Eve wanted to be like God, the path open to them (and to us) was the path of the Son.  One sometimes hears theologians (e.g. Balthasar) saying things to the effect that we should not think of the Trinity above us and creation below, but rather that creation somehow exists in the “space” of difference opened up between the divine persons.  I’m not really sure what they mean by this, or if it’s just European continental gobbledigook—but I think they might mean something like what I’ve just said.

The Holy Spirit is a more shadowy figure in the Christian life, and rightly so, since His role is to deliver God to the soul.  He has no “face” of his own, as some theologians say in their usual cryptic way.  Does this not seem like a humble job, the job of a messenger, the sort of thing our missionaries are supposed to be doing?  We think so only because our missionaries do it in an imperfect, human way.  If a being could deliver the mind of the Son Himself, with no interjections of its own biases or oversights, that being would be God Himself.  Thus, three ways to appropriate divinity:  source, receptacle, carrier.

The Fathers borrowed from Platonism for the very good reason that Platonism’s logic of participation provides a way to make sense of the promise of theosis.  In the Platonic system, human beings are humans because they participate in the Form of Humanity.  Each human being is a combination of Humanity and receptacle/potency/”being an instance of”.  The Form of Humanity is itself not an instance of Humanity; if it were, that would open us up to the paradox of the “third man”.  No, the Form of Humanity must be subsistent Humanity–the act of humanity without subsisting in an instance.  If it were an instance, its humanity would be enclosed in itself and could have nothing to do with anybody else’s humanity.

This is very close to the theist understanding of God (first formulated, I believe, by Ibn Sina) as subsistent existence.  To non-Christian theists, it would have been unclear whether subsistent existence could Itself have Its own nature without that reducing It to an instance, limited by being one nature among many.  (Hence, the One is “above Being”.)  The Christian scholastics, though, never doubted it.  God must have a nature, because He has promised that we can partake in it.  But to be subsistent existence, He must be identical to His own nature, because His essence is identical to His existence.  This formulation certainly makes God more mysterious than any other being, but also makes Him more communicable.

It makes no sense for someone to share in my human nature, because my “being an instance of” has enclosed my nature in myself.  If someone made a clone of me to carry out human processes just like mine, that clone would thereby have his own human nature; he would be a separate instance of humanity.  With God, things are different.  There are no instances of divinity.  If somewhat engages in distinctly divine activity (charity), it can only mean that God Himself is dwelling in that person’s soul and acting in him.

Western theologians sometimes refer to the persons of the Trinity as “subsistent relations”.  This means that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have no existence apart from the interpersonal acts that define their relationships with each other.  It also means that the logic of participation can be applied to these relations–in particular, that the Sonship of Jesus Christ is something we can participate in.  If Jesus were just “a Son”–an instance of sonship–rather than “the Son”, this would not be possible.  Rather, the Fathers–and most splendidly in the great Apostle, Saint Paul, himself–speak of our adoption into divinity through a profound interpenetration with Jesus Christ.  We are to put on Christ, to be buried and rise with Him, and He is to live in us.  The identification with our Savior must be great indeed, that Christ can take upon Himself our sins, and we can take from Him His righteousness.  And none of this is a game of pretend played by the Father, but rather the identification between Christ and those he saves is so strong in reality that the Father is perfectly just in imputing the righteousness of the one to the other.

Surely, you will say, God did not intend that everyone should have to think through all of this in order to be saved?  Of course He didn’t.  All Christians must believe that the Father is God, that the Son is God, that God Himself is our final purpose and joy, and that the Father wants to make us sons through the work of the Son, but no one is obliged to think through it any further.  If one does want to think through it further, the Church has provided us with a wondrous glimpse of God’s inner life to make sure that we don’t lose our way.

35 thoughts on “Why did God reveal the doctrine of the Trinity?

  1. @Bonald – You misrepresent my views on this somewhat, by conflating what I assert to be true of Christians as such (Mere Christians), with what needs to be true of specific denominations (in order to cohere with other aspects of their theology and doctrine);

    Also I am talking about the ‘Athanasian’ *description* of the nature of the Trinity (three-in-one-in-three etc), not the Trinity itself;

    Also I do not state that it is nonsense as such, but nonsense from the level of a simple person using common sense – and that to make sense of the ‘Athanasian’ Trinity one must ascend into very high levels of *abstraction* (such as you are working at in the bulk of this article) which (and here you may certainly disagree) while not at all wrong in themselves, and wholly compatible with the highest levels of Christian faith – nevertheless have a *tendency* in many/ most people to threaten/ confuse the *personal* relationship which (unlike the Athanasian description) *is* essential to a Christian.

    I also assert that the abstract conceptions have a tendency (often seen in history) to usurp the primacy of simple revelation – and to get shoved forwards as definitive of Christianity as such.

    But I fully go along with your last paragraph – so I suspect we probably are in essential agreement on this topic!

    • Dr. Charlton says: “Also I do not state that it is nonsense as such, but nonsense from the level of a simple person using common sense – and that to make sense of the ‘Athanasian’ Trinity one must ascend into very high levels of *abstraction* (such as you are working at in the bulk of this article) which (and here you may certainly disagree) while not at all wrong in themselves, and wholly compatible with the highest levels of Christian faith – nevertheless have a *tendency* in many/ most people to threaten/ confuse the *personal* relationship which (unlike the Athanasian description) *is* essential to a Christian.”

      Well, I certainly disagree. Even the Ethiopians hate Arias and love St. Athanasius! Who and where are all these simple-minded people who have gotten themselves all confuzzled by St. Athanasius?

      From http://www.ethiopianorthodox.org/english/ethiopian/prechristian.html

      (note: it seems as if English is the author’s second language)

      The introduction of Christianity as the state religion marked a turning point in Ethiopia history. Christianity does not constitute a purely religious phenomenon on the country, but plays an integral role in all aspects of national life. The Church is not only a religious institution, but has for many centuries been the repository of the cultural, political and social life of the people. The true feeling of the people who first received Christianity seems to have been expressed in the names they bestowed upon Frumentius, which are Abba Salama. Kassate Berhan, “Father of peace and Revealer of light”. It is interesting to note that Ezana and Saezana appear to have baptized with names also signifying illumination – Abreha (He illuminated) and Atsbeha (He brought the dawn).

      ….

      The birth of Ethiopian Church took place at a time when the Arian heresy was at its peak. When Frumentius was consecrated, the Patriarchate of Alexandria, under the leadership of Athanasius, “the Column of Orthodoxy”, was the stronghold of the Nicene faith against Arianism. Constantius expelled Athanasius, however and installed an Arian, George of Cappadocia, in his place. The first ecumenical Council, where Arius was condemned as a heretic, took place in 325, Shortly before the establishment of the Ethiopian church, but the decision of the Council was nevertheless regarded as binding, and Ethiopia stood by Athanasius, and the Nicene Faith. In vain, Constantius, the son of Constantine the Great, tried to bring Ethiopia onto the heresy of Arius. It was for this reason that he addressed the orthodox group of any support, and ensures international recognition of Arianism. A certain Theophilus, a priest from Socotra, highly respected for his impeccable moral character, was entrusted with this mission to Axum, but he was apparently not even allowed to enter Aksumite territory. His mission failed, and Frumentius remained in Axum, to continue the teaching which he had learnt from Athanasius. The Ethiopian church holds Athanasius in special veneration. He was canonized as a saint, and his work, The Life of Saint Anthony, was translated into Ethiopic. One of the fourteen Anaphora’s of the Ethiopian Church is attributed to Athanasius. The 318 Father who participated in the First Ecumenical Council are also specially venerated, and another Anaphora of the Liturgy bears their name, as the Anaphora of the Three Hundred Fathers.

  2. A unitary god that is readily understood in earthly terms is not holy. Such a “deity” is profane.

    The doctrine of the Trinity refers to the holiness of God.

    We are warned time and time again, in scripture and tradition, NOT to use reductionist reasoning in a religious context.

  3. The objections of the Mormons and Moslems and others to the doctrine of the Trinity is probably because it makes no sense and is a mystery for those who live within three dimensional space and one dimensional time. Since God has infinite attributes he can live within (for example) three dimensional time and six dimensional space. And in this eternity it could be perfectly logical. In the end of course the doctrine is naturally unknowable to humans, at least here in temporal life.

    • I’m not LDS but it’s news to me that Mormons don’t “believe” in the “Trinity”. My understanding is that the LDS refers to the “Godhead” as three persons with one purpose instead of three hypostases with homoousios simply because Joseph Smith wasn’t a student of Greek.

      It seems to me that if you say, in English, “God is composed of three persons who are actually one”, this is incorrect and also impossible. That this short-hand and incorrect translation is widely spoken doesn’t make it correct. Not only is there a problem with the translation of Greek into Latin and thus English, but in fact this short-hand isn’t even what the Creed says: it says that Jesus and the Father are “consubstantial” (alternatively “one in Being”), which though inexact is a lot closer to homoousian than “one person”.

      As said, I’m not Mormon for other reasons, but on this LDS theology is in agreement with the Christian fathers; it’s the modern Christians who don’t understand their theological history who are wrong. The problem arises from trying to discuss Greek concepts in badly-mistranslated pop-culture English. This is not an error by the Church, which is very careful to translate and explain such concepts appropriately; it is an error by those who don’t pay attention to what they are taught.

      • Have to agree with the Chevalier re the sloppiness of the English often used by Christians of the Trinity. It would be nice if they just routinely added “being” to the phrase, “three persons in one.” It would also be good if they were taught the difference between “being” and “person.”

        Do Mormons make use of this difference? I thought their “Trinity” was three disparate beings, not consubstantial, who had a common purpose. This would put them in total disagreement with the Fathers.

  4. Pingback: This Week in Reaction | The Reactivity Place

  5. Wow, Bonald. Just brilliant. Thank you. This line in particular was a wonderful insight:

    He must be identical to His own nature, because His essence is identical to His existence. This formulation certainly makes God more mysterious than any other being, but also makes Him more communicable.

    Regarding your wonder over Balthasar’s suggestion that the Creation happens in the “space” between the Persons, I can’t say for sure (never having read Balthasar), but I think you are right to suggest that it is like the interposition of any given number between the infinite positive of the Father and the infinite negative of the Son.

    St. Thomas says more or less the same thing in the passage I quoted in my last post:

    … since he understands all things by understanding himself; and through this Word, he ‘proceeds’ to the love of all things and of himself … And the circle being completed, nothing more can be added to it: so that a third procession within the divine nature is impossible, although there follows a procession toward external nature.

    The key is that thanks to the filiation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit, the Persons are able to apprehend in each other, and to love, “all things.” God knows and values all that happens – all that ever has happened, and all that ever shall happen – by knowing and valuing himself. He knows and values himself by way of the knowledge each Person has of the others. If it were not for the distinctions – in Balthasar’s terms, the distance – between the Persons, that knowledge and evaluation could not occur. Circumincession can only proceed as between two disparate things.

    The knowledge and love of the Persons for each other then proceed toward nature. Creation is thus the third procession of God. But even the procession toward “external” nature, as Thomas puts it, occurs within the Godhead; for God knows what he does in Creation by knowing himself. So, nature is not God, is not a part or constituent of God; but it is *in* God.

  6. Thanks for your support, Ian and Kristor. This post combined a few blog ideas I’d been trying to get around to writing about, and I hope it didn’t show.

  7. The post assumes God revealed the doctrine of the Trinity. This is like a Calvinist post with the title “Why did God reveal the doctrine of double predestination?” I do not believe God revealed either doctrine. The doctrines were imposed on the scriptural texts at a later date. If God wished the reveal the doctrine of the Trinity, the 16th chapter of Matthew would have been a good opportunity to clarify matters.

    • Although common, “double predestination” is not the correct term.

      On the one hand, God sovereignly predestined some to eternal life; on the other, He foreordained others to damnation. However, these are not parallel.

      In the elect—who have done nothing to deserve or earn God’s favor—God acts through the Holy Spirit towards their regeneration. The work of the Holy Spirit makes it possible for the elect to choose to turn to God.* This is God working in those whom He has chosen, making it possible for them to repent and believe. Since this is God’s work, the praise, credit, and glory are His alone.

      For the non-elect, there is no work of God. They, like the elect, are born of, and into, sin. However, the Holy Spirit does not work in the non-elect, so they remain spiritually dead. They choose to do wrong, and so to them alone belongs the blame for their state. God did not make them choose evil.

      We are all worthy of damnation, because we are all sinners, incapable of obeying God’s laws. However, out of his infinite munificence, God, for reasons of His own, has chosen some to be saved through Jesus’ finished work.

      The Biblical support for this is abundant. Ephesians 1:4-14 and 2:1-10 are a start. The Westminster Confession of Faith (with Scripture proofs), Chapter 3, quotes numerous Biblical passages to support this position.

      In writing this post, I referred to this article and this one.

      *That’s right, even the elect must choose their paths. Predestination is not fate.

      • What you’ve described here sounds strikingly like the Catholic understanding of predestination. Are you cognizant of any serious (i.e., not merely terminological) differences between them?

      • The work of the Holy Spirit makes it possible for the elect to choose to turn to God.* This is God working in those whom He has chosen, making it possible for them to repent and believe.

        Does this imply that it is possible for the elect to choose not to turn to God? Are there members of the elect so-defined who will be damned?

        Another question: if double predestination is not the correct term, what is a more accurate term for the Calvinist position?

      • Ah, guess I should have read your links first. Looks like the preferred term is ‘foreordination’.

      • Proph,

        I’m not familiar enough with the Catholic position to be able to respond. However, I imagine that if I made the Reformed position sound like the Catholic one, then my explanation was inadequate (or the two positions are more similar than we imagined). As the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it (Ch. III, Section 3),

        By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestined unto eternal life, and others foreordained to everlasting death.

        The important point is that this is not symmetrical: left to our own devices, we would all be condemned. God’s action is to intervene in the lives of the elect. See “this article” I referred to above.

        Ian,

        The short answer to your first two questions is “no.” (Arminians and Lutherans might give you different answers, though.)

        The work of the Holy Spirit is irresistible (the I in TULIP*), but the elect still must choose. The Holy Spirit leads the elect to sanctification (“by their fruits ye shall know them”), while those who fall away and do not return were never among the elect at all. On the other hand, the elect cannot fall from grace permanently (the P in TULIP). I don’t quite understand how choice works with predestination (see the “Predestination is not fate” link above), but as has been noted elsewhere, a God that we could fully comprehend would not be much of a God at all. Having accepted numerous mysterious things about God—the Trinity, His omniscience, His ability to turn water to wine, et cetera and so on—I don’t find it so hard to accept this, too.

        *TULIP, codified in response to the Arminian heresy, stands for:
        Total depravity;
        Unconditional election;
        Limited atonement;
        Irresistible grace;
        Perseverance of the saints.

        Each of these has specific meanings. For example, there is no limit to God’s ability to save sinners through His atonement, but the work of that atonement is limited to those whom He has chosen. The acronym is a mnemonic to the phrases, and the phrases are pithy summaries of greater ideas which require explication.

      • Wm. Lewis,

        Thanks for the explanation.

        I wonder if Calvinists resolve the tension between irresistable grace on the one hand, and choice on the other, by way of reasoning similar to what Kristor wrote here (http://orthosphere.org/2013/03/06/why-dont-the-blessed-in-heaven-sin-why-do-we/) on why the blessed in Heaven do not sin despite still being free creatures:

        Think of the worst pain you have ever experienced. Would you ever volunteer to subject yourself to it everlastingly and without hope of remission, for the sake of the pleasure of, say, eating a piece of chocolate cake?

        That is what the prospect of sinning would be like for the blessed.

        So perhaps a Calvinist would argue in a similar manner, that once God has placed you in a state of grace, you would never choose to reject that grace, because you can now compare the alternative, and would find it sorely lacking.

      • So perhaps a Calvinist would argue in a similar manner, that once God has placed you in a state of grace, you would never choose to reject that grace, because you can now compare the alternative, and would find it sorely lacking.

        Hmm. Interesting, but I don’t think that is the Reformed take on it.

        The basic idea is that salvation is entirely up to God. He chose whom to save before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4-5). There is nothing we can do to influence that decision (Titus 3:5-6; Galatians 2:16). Nothing can thwart His will, so those whom He has chosen will be saved (John 6:44-45; Romans 8:30). If we could reject salvation, then our wills would be superior to God’s, which is clearly wrong: what kind of omnipotent God would He be if we could thwart Him?

        I suppose one way to understand predestination is that predestination refers to God’s predetermined decisions about us, but in those areas in which we can choose, we may.

        As long as we’re referring to Kristor’s pieces, here is one in which he discusses how God could not have created beings without the ability to choose. Our ability to choose, of course, is limited to those things which are possible. God chose for me to be a human man. As a natural consequence of that, I cannot choose to grow wings, or to breathe water, or to be a woman, or a cat. Similarly, I cannot choose to be chosen (or unchosen) by God. However, I can choose what to wear, where to eat, how to make a living, etc., but even those choices are, to a degree, constrained by God’s choices for me (he chose to make me “vertically challenged” and slender, so I would never be able to make my living as an NFL linesman).

        Thank you for helping me to understand predestination better.

      • Oh, crumb. Could I ask for a little help with my html? Only the first paragraph should be blockquote, and the rest in regular text.

        As long as we’re on the subject, would it be possible to add a “preview” function to the comments? That would prevent problems like this.

        Also, there’s no need for this comment to remain, so I hope you’ll delete it.

      • I don’t think WordPress gives us the option of a preview button, but if it does, I think that’s a good suggestion. I’ll poke around and see what I can find.

    • So I guess the events of the Baptism of Our Lord, the Transfiguration, “I and the Father are one,” “whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” etc., were just headfakes?

  8. With regard to Adam G’s remark about the last paragraph — there’s a big difference between believing something is true and developing an understanding of how it is true or its logical implications. I’d be in a bad situation if, for example, I had to understand how the sacraments are a means of grace for them to be effective. 🙂 Fortunately the command is to believe and obey.

    Another point I’ve seen raised re Trinitarian doctrine is that the various heresies destroy the foundations of philosophy in one way or another. If God is not one and eternal, then either there is some other, more fundamental ground of being, or there’s no unifying principle at all. If God is not three persons, then there’s little barrier to monism or pantheism. Even if that can be avoided, a non-Trinitarian view of God excludes the idea of relationship or love from God’s nature. If Scripture tells us “God is love” then there must be a loving relationship coextensive with God Himself.

  9. Thank you, Bonald. That was an excellent summary, audacious and humble at the same time.

    Proph, I’m not sure what you’re talking about in saying Mr. James’ description of predestination is similar to Catholic teaching.

    “For the non-elect, there is no work of God. They, like the elect, are born of, and into, sin. However, the Holy Spirit does not work in the non-elect, so they remain spiritually dead.”

    That’s gotta hurt. So in addition to the mystery of the Atonement, we have the mystery of Divine Pickiness. Thanks, Calvin!

    • Don’t complain to Calvin for what the Bible says; complain to the Author (not that it will do you much good):

      “And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.”
      Exodus 33:19

      “even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”
      Ephesians 1:4-6

      “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
      Romans 8:29-30

      “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose* you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.”
      2 Thessalonians 2:13

      These verses (and others) show that God decided whom to save, and that He did so before the world was created: His choice, not ours. Throughout the Bible, God exercised His divine perogative to choose: He chose to create the universe out of nothing; He chose Jacob over Esau; He chose Moses to deliver the Hebrews from enslavement; He chose Saul, then David, to be kings of His people; He chose His prophets (who could not escape that choice—see Jonah); He chose John the Baptist to fulfill the prophesies in Isaiah and Malachi; He chose Paul to be His messenger to the the Gentiles—He even chose His own Son to pay the price for our sins.

      Is it really so hard to believe that God also chose whom to save, especially when the Bible tells you that is exactly He did?

      The doctrine of election is not something invented by Calvin or other Reformers; it has been in the Bible all along.

      *The Greek word used here for chose appears three times in the Bible, and in each instance, someone is chosing one thing over another, with the implication that something else is rejected. See this article.

  10. “For the non-elect, there is no work of God. They, like the elect, are born of, and into, sin. However, the Holy Spirit does not work in the non-elect, so they remain spiritually dead.”

    Thus we see the problem with Calvinism and classical theology. God, in this view, creates men ex nihilo, attributes sin to them from their very first instant, does not cover the non-elect with his grace, and dooms them to eternal torment. Given that the majority, perhaps the vast majority, of men and women who have ever lived have never received the sacraments or even heard of Jesus, the non-elect must be numerous indeed. This is difficult to reconcile with 1 John 4:8. I fail to see how this theology or this plan for mankind glorifies God.

    • False premises lead to false conclusions.

      “God, in this view, creates men ex nihilo”
      God created the universe ex nihilo, but He did not create men ex nihilo: God created the first man, Adam, from dust, and breathed life into him.

      “[God] attributes sin to them from their very first instant”
      God did not impute sin to man from the moment of creation. In fact, each act of creation was good, until the creation of Adam and Eve; then, the act was very good. SUrely they were created without sin. However, Adam and Eve sinned when they disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit. God had told them that they would die if they were to eat it, and die they did. Adam, as the representative of all men, passed his sin down through his line to all men.

      This is straight out of Genesis. Please read it.

      The wonder is not that God punished Adam and Eve; the wonder is that he did not immediately punish them and so extinguish the human race.

      “[God] does not cover the non-elect with his grace”
      Although you seem to rail against this, it is correct. Not all shall be saved. Matthew 25:31-46 (the parable of the sheep and the goats), amongst other passages, makes this clear.

      The wonder is not that God punishes sinners; the wonder is that He forgives anyone his transgressions against Him.

      “Given that the majority, perhaps the vast majority, of men and women who have ever lived have never received the sacraments or even heard of Jesus”
      The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent Acts 17:30
      Those in the past who did not have the word of God are not necessarily condemned, but we shall not be held blameless if we fail to repent.

      “This is difficult to reconcile with 1 John 4:8.”
      Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.
      Does a loving father, one who truly cares for his children, fail to discipline them? When my children intentionally misbehave, am I showing them true love by not punishing them appropriately for their transgressions? When I punish my children, I do it out of love for them. Surely God loves us even as He punishes us.

      “I fail to see how this theology or this plan for mankind glorifies God.”
      I think that is in large part because you misunderstand this theology and plan for mankind.

      The Reformed Faith is hard to understand for many because they start from mistaken premises. People hew to what they believe is correct, or what they think ought to be, even though Scripture says something different. Shall human “understanding” trump the word of God as revealed in the Bible?

      Luther, Calvin and the other great Reformers studied the Bible and took what it said seriously. They saw that Catholic practice and thought diverged significantly from the Bible, and sought to correct—to reform—that error. You may disagree with that, but if you cannot show a Biblical basis for your disagreement, then I doubt that your argument will go very far.

  11. “God created the first man, Adam, from dust, and breathed life into him.”

    We agree, but where did the dust come from and where did the breath of life come from? “Ex nihilo” does not appear in Genesis. And more to the point, what should Genesis mean for moderns? I recommend for your consideration The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College.

    In Paradise Lost Milton imagines Adam and Eve considering suicide to extinguish human race. This would have been a very bad choice, and in the poem they reject it. Why do you consider it a “wonder” that God did not make that choice and extinguish the human race?

    Should God punish all men for Adam’s transgression, something that they did not commit? I do not agree that this is punishing appropriately.

    We agree that “those in the past who did not have the word of God are not necessarily condemned, but we shall not be held blameless if we fail to repent.” But that raises questions about how they are to be saved in the absence of hearing the word of God (Rom 10:17) and in the absence of baptism (John 3:5).

    “Luther, Calvin and the other great Reformers studied the Bible and took what it said seriously. They saw that Catholic practice and thought diverged significantly from the Bible, and sought to correct—to reform—that error.” We agree on that as well.

    • “where did the dust come from and where did the breath of life come from?”

      God, of course.

      In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Genesis 1:1.
      then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. Genesis 2:7

      “‘Ex nihilo’ does not appear in Genesis.”

      Ex nihilo, or any other similar phrase, does not need to be present for it to be understood (cf. the Trinity).

      I’m not sure where you’re going with this, but God is the ultimate cause and source. There is nothing prior, and nothing that caused Him.

      “Why do you consider it a “wonder” that God did not make that choice and extinguish the human race?”

      It’s a wonder that God did not extinguish the human race at the outset because Adam and Eve had earned their deaths at the moment they sinned. This is the very first act of mercy towards sinners: God postponed the deaths of Adam and Eve.

      “Should God punish all men for Adam’s transgression, something that they did not commit? I do not agree that this is punishing appropriately.”

      First, it doesn’t matter what we think God should or should not do. Second, it doesn’t matter if we think God’s punishment is inappropriate. What matters is what the Bible tells us:

      Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. Romans 5:12-14 (also answering, again, one of your previous objections, as well as apposite to your concern over those born before Jesus came.)

      Regardless of what we think about it, we all bear Adam’s sin:
      Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men Romans 5:18
      “One trespass” being Adam’s sin.

      As well as the following:
      Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. Psalm 51:5
      Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins. Ecclesiastes 7:20
      for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God Romans 3:23
      And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. Luke 18:19
      If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. 1 John 1:10

      As the Shorter Catechism put it in Q/A 16:

      Q. Did all mankind fall in Adam’s first transgression?
      A. The covenant being made with Adam, not only for himself, but for his posterity; all mankind, descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him, in his first transgression.

      I will reiterate what Alan Roebuck wrote here: “[confessions and catechisms have] authority only by virtue of being a faithful summary of what the Bible teaches, the Bible being the supreme (and only inerrant) authority on every subject about which it speaks.”

      As for the justness of God’s judgment, we need look no further than Acts:

      The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. Acts 17:30-31

      The Bible tells us that Adam’s sin passed to us all; therefore, it is true. The Bible tells us God will punish sinners, and do so justly; therefore, it is true.

      The Good News is that through God’s grace we may be saved through faith and repentance.

  12. Let me say at the outset I have tremendous respect for Calvin, except for the Servetus affair, of course. The Institutes is a massive work and massively influential. I appreciate the internal consistency of the work and its attempt to systematize all of theology. Calvin may be more influential that Luther, but I am attracted to the earthy Luther more than to Calvin, and would much prefer the company of Erasmus, his contemporary, as a neighbor. Yes, it is the moderate and humane Erasmus that appeals to me much more. Catholics, Arminians, and Anabaptists, and others found Calvin unconvincing. More to the point, most warm, moderate and humane moderns, including many who have left the reformed faith and who presumably understand it, find Calvinism unconvincing if not terrifying, not because it is illogical or unscriptural, but because it is a system lacking in human warmth.

    • “Lacking in human warmth.”

      I have not found that to be the case at all in my own dealings with followers of the Reformed faith. You may find it lacking in the system, but it is not lacking in the believers.

      As you observe, many have found Calvin’s arguments unconvincing, yet his positions have altered the course of history. Of course, the veracity of a position is not dependent upon how many find the argument convincing, so I’m not sure what the point is.

      Similarly, someone’s personality does not affect the veracity of his position. Perhaps Erasmus would be a better neighbor than Calvin, but this, too, is orthogonal to the issue.

      What is at stake is not the “warm fuzziness” of the church one attends; what is at stake is your eternal soul. I believe it is possible for members of churches that promulgate incorrect teachings to be saved, but the likelihood of salvation and sanctification is greater if one is a member of a non-heretical church.

      • It is the system, not the believers that I am referring to. Then again, the Servetus affair had more fire than human warmth.

  13. I like this, reminds me of Lewis: “I have not come to torment or frustrate the natural man or woman, but to kill it….give youself to me and I will make of you a new self…my heart, shall become your heart.”

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