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Reading the Bible like a Trinitarian: Calvin on the Meaning of ‘God’

12 February, 2008

b and lilyWhen we read ‘God’ in the Bible, what does it mean?

The great majority of people, it seems, including the great majority of Christians, would answer, ‘God the Father’–in other words, the Father of Jesus the Son. The fact that most of us are ‘functionally unitarian’ is closely tied to the assumption that according to the Bible God=God the Father, unless of course the Bible obviously and clearly calls Jesus or the Holy Spirit ‘God’. What I mean is that, because we read the Bible this way, we think and speak and pray this way too–in thought, words and prayer, ‘God’ nearly always means something along the lines of ‘God the Father’. But if we’re Christians reading the Bible, then we’re trinitarians, not unitarians, and we confess that the Son and the Spirit are no less ‘God’ than the Father, that they are in fact personally distinct from one another and yet together are the one ‘God’: we believe in a Triune God, as thoroughly one in one way as he is three in another.

This isn’t some philosophical construct imposed upon the simplicity of scripture, but the unified testimony of all the scriptures: there is only one true God, the Creator and Redeemer; the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are each God, each the Creator and Redeemer; yet Father, Son, and Spirit are personally distinct from one another and in intimate relationship with one another. How does the church summarize all this biblical testimony? One God in three persons, one according to essence and three according to persons. So how do we read the Bible in this way, the way it requires us to read it according to its own testimony?

Calvin, in contrast to the unitarian reading of the Bible that was becoming popular among the radicals of his day, read the Bible in a different, more nuanced way, which I believe is so important for practicing a deeply trinitarian reading and interpretation of the Bible. Calvin wasn’t the only one reading the Bible this way, of course — all the orthodox traditions of Christianity read the Bible this way — but his discussion is really helpful nonetheless.

For Calvin, since our Triune God is both fully one (as essentially God in his ‘being’) and fully three (as personally Father, Son, and Spirit), we must read the Bible in a way that is careful to respect which way the Bible is using the word ‘God’, whether according to the essence itself or distinguishing between the persons.

Sometimes the Bible says ‘God’ relationally, referring particularly to God the Father. Calvin therefore taught that when the Bible says ‘God’ in a context which is comparing him to Jesus or the Spirit, the word is used in a way that distinguishes one person from the others, and in this case ‘God’ means ‘God the Father’, as was the usual usage of the New Testament authors (especially Paul). Paul often refers to “God the Father” and “the Lord Jesus Christ”, and he also often simply refers to “God” and “Christ”, meaning the same thing. The examples are numerous; read through some of Paul and you’ll see what I mean.

The important thing to understand here is that ‘God’ means ‘God the Father’ only when ‘God’ is personally distinguished from another person of the Trinity in the context of the passage. The Father is the first person of the Trinity, and he is the person from whom all our redemption flows, through the Son and by the Spirit. At the same time, this personal order doesn’t lessen the full ‘Godness’ of the second and third persons–the persons aren’t personally each other, but they are all fully and equally the same God. So even Paul often uses ‘God’ in a way that isn’t distinguishing the Father from the Son or Spirit (‘I thank my God concerning you’, for example), and in those passages he’s not referring to the first person as over against the other two.

Sometimes the Bible says ‘God’ simply, referring generally to the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In these contexts, Calvin said, ‘God’ is used in a general way that is not distinguishing ‘God’ from another divine person in the surrounding passage. This is often the case in the New Testament, but especially the case in the Old Testament when the mystery of the triune nature of the God of the Bible was only very dimly revealed in hints and inferences and prophecies. So, in the full light of all the scriptures, we must understand ‘God’ in general to mean ‘the Triune God’–what other ‘God in general’ is there? And certainly we don’t want to say that God the Father is somehow more ‘God in general’ than the Son and Spirit?

So in Psalm 46, as but one of so many examples, ‘God is our refuge and strength’ must be understood and interpreted as something equally true of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the three persons who in their unique personal ways as one God work all things together in unity for our salvation–the Triune God is our refuge and strength. The same Goes for ‘the LORD’ later in the Psalm–‘LORD’ is no more automatically a proper name for God the Father as ‘God’ is. But when ‘God’ (or ‘LORD’, etc.) is used to distinguish among the persons (as in Psalm 110, ‘the LORD said to my Lord’), God the Father is chiefly in view.

In sum: When any of the names of God are used in a general or unqualified sense, the Triune God is ultimately who the Bible is talking about. When any of the names of God are used in a personal and mutually related sense, one of the persons (almost always the Father) is who the Bible is talking about.

Calvin talked about this quite a bit in several different places (if you want the references, let me know), because of the problems he was facing in the problematic biblical interpretations of the antitrinitarians of his day. The antitrinitarians were arguing that, since the Bible so often distinguished ‘God’ from Jesus, the Father was properly the one true God and Jesus was…something else. The first part of their conclusion is very common today, and thank God that the second part of their conclusion isn’t more common! Calvin’s response was to read the Bible in the trinitarian way the Bible calls us to read it–or rather, to read the Bible in the way the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit calls us to understand and acknowledge himself as the one true God, our Triune Creator and Redeemer.

  1. 12 February, 2008 1:01 pm

    What can be said of Calvin was true of Zwingli. Whenever Zwingli said God he meant all three members of the Trinity.

  2. creedorchaos permalink*
    12 February, 2008 2:29 pm


    Absolutely, and this thoroughgoing trinitarianism was kept up (and even strengthened) by their post-Reformation successors. The same was true of pre-Reformation greats like Thomas Aquinas, as well. It’s such a confessional (creedal and catechetical, according to the analogy of scripture) way of reading the Bible, which means both that it’s highly biblical and richly theological and practical, and that it’s out of favor not only with mainstream biblical scholarship in the contemporary era, but most popular understanding as well. I know I grew up thinking ‘the Father’ whenever I heard ‘God’.


  3. 12 February, 2008 7:06 pm

    Hey Mark’s making fun of you on the thomasgoodwin site ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. thomasgoodwin permalink
    12 February, 2008 11:48 pm

    No he’s not. And there’s a comma after “Hey”; so, consider this a “making fun of Phil”.

  5. creedorchaos permalink*
    13 February, 2008 2:09 am

    Hey, what you guys do on your own time is no business of mine!
    ๐Ÿ˜‰ –and notice the comma?


  6. 13 February, 2008 8:51 am

    I like what you said about most of us being ‘functionally unitarian.’ What are some of your thoughts on the way theology has been done since the time of Augustine. I am refering to the approach of Dogmatics to start with the Being and attributes of God then proceed to a discussion of the Trinity. I personally think that there should be a whole course in seminary on just the Athanasian Creed. It should at least, be required reading and study by all pastors.

  7. 13 February, 2008 4:00 pm


    I totally agree. As far as the Augustinian tradition on this goes, although I’m sympathetic with the danger of separating ‘the one God’ from ‘the triune God’ and letting the former do all the real theological work, I’m also pretty well convinced that the best theologians (including Augustine) didn’t actually do this, in theory or practice. They talked about the unity of God first, yes, but not in such a way that divorced this unity from the trinity of persons who subsist in this unity (or in whom this unity subsists). They’re simply doing what some contemporary theologians call ‘redoublement’–speaking of the same God in two different respects (essentially and personally), and speaking in a way appropriate to each respect. Neither takes precedence over the other.

    So which should we talk about first? Well, either one works, I think. Redemptive-historically, the sole uniqueness of God is clearly revealed before his triunity, which is a pretty straightforward argument for De Deo Uno coming before De Deo Trino. Some have also argued that since each person is fully the same God, then all the names and attributes of this one God need to be explained to some extent before talk about the persons of God can really be understood in any context.

    On the other hand, when we talk about our a posteriori knowledge of God and our experience of God, the persons are clearly in the foreground. We don’t know any ‘one God’ without knowing the Father in the Son by the Spirit, the only God. Plus, the argument that the names and attributes of God must be known before the persons can be turned on its head–as we’re in the fulness of the ages and have the whole of canonical revelation, we can’t REALLY know the names and attributes or anything about the one God in a true and faithful way unless we know the one God exactly as the Triune God as he has disclosed himself to us in word, deed, in the incarnate Word and in his indwelling Spirit.

    So, for me, it comes back to redoublement — always keeping the oneness and threeness of God in view, even while one or the other is in the foreground because we can’t think or speak two different things about the same reality at the very same time. And that’s EXACTLY what the Athanasian creed is doing, it seems to me, especially in all its curious and lofty repitition and parallelism.


  8. thomasgoodwin permalink
    13 February, 2008 4:40 pm

    Sounds like Nazianzus: No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the Splendour of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Them than I am carried back to the One.

    I wonder if you couldn’t then comment on Van Til’s (in)famous, “God is one person”?

  9. 13 February, 2008 10:41 pm

    Wonderful post, Brannan

  10. 14 February, 2008 7:13 am


    I’ve honestly no competency to evaluate Van Til’s position because I’ve never studied it myself. From what little I’ve gathered, however, it seems the thrust of his stance was that God is essentially ‘personal’–it is of his nature to be personal, and before we explicitly knew and acknowledged him as tripersonal, the people of God still knew and acknowledged him as intrinsically personal (i.e., not a static ‘monad’ of being up there somewhere).

    This may be wrong, or too charitable a reading–again, I’m not sure. If this is what he meant, then 1) I can sympathise with what he’s saying, yet 2) it probably isn’t a good idea to ever even HINT at the language of ‘one person’, even if you’re trying to say something else–it’s just too liable to misunderstanding and misconstrual.

    Perhaps you’re more familiar with the specifics of what he was getting at?


  11. thomasgoodwin permalink
    14 February, 2008 9:42 am


    I agree, the ‘one person’ language is too open to misunderstanding. I’ve not been able to chat about it with any Trinitarian experts, so I threw it out. I’m sure we can talk about it *during* Phil’s wedding ๐Ÿ˜‰


  12. thomasgoodwin permalink
    14 February, 2008 9:43 am

    By “threw it out” I meant to you, not my theology, though I possibly could!

  13. 14 February, 2008 11:55 am


    Well, once you get around to talking to a trinitarian expert, let me know what s/he says. ๐Ÿ™‚


  14. 14 February, 2008 5:06 pm

    Maybe you can ask M. Garcia. He’s famous for charitable readings ๐Ÿ™‚

  15. thomasgoodwin permalink
    14 February, 2008 5:37 pm

    Ouch, WSCAL is still reeling from the pummeling they took from a guy who is about 4 foot tall. ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚

  16. 14 February, 2008 8:11 pm

    4 feet tall? well, that figures!

  17. reformedphilosophy permalink
    18 February, 2008 3:11 pm

    Thanks for the post, Brannan. Studying philosophy, I need as much Trinitarian encouragement as I can get! In my estimation, there seems to be a long tradition of Christian philosophers being less than Trinity-friendly. For example, I am currently reading through a Christian ethicistsโ€™ book that advocates a Platonic framework, which, I am planning on arguing, commits him to a view that denies aspects of Christโ€™s (divine) goodness.

    Hopefully Corrie and I will be able to come visit you all before too long and we can discuss this further. Thanks again.


  18. 18 February, 2008 10:41 pm

    It might also be interesting to read the Bible Christologically.

    As an aside, even with redoublement, Augustine’s view of divine unity per simplicity simply (pun!) isn’t biblical, nor supportable by the biblical text and neither is his view of the filiqoue.

    And I am not sure why people are all over the Athanasian Creed. It wasn’t composed by Athanasius, it isn’t reflective of anything distinctly Athanasian and it isn’t a universally accepted creed, but a later local western creed.


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